✦ “Charity isn’t about pity, it is about love. Charity and love are the same - with charity you give love, so don’t just give money but reach out your hand instead.” - Mother Teresa
Defining success can be a challenging task. It is a term that we frequently bestow upon people who have typically achieved great things in their careers, who have amassed extensive material wealth, are renowned celebrities or who have performed above and beyond in their respective fields.
However, to be widely considered a success for helping others is quite another thing. It displays a sensitivity and kindness of human nature that cannot, arguably, be measured or bettered.
Chantal Fernandes is one such person who, for close to two decades, has so selflessly given and strived to help others less fortunate than her who have often found themselves in desperate situations.
Born in Uganda, raised in Watford in the UK but with wanderlust from an early age that saw her travel the world extensively, she now resides in the island paradise of Phuket, Thailand, which she has called home for over 25 years.
Chantal is someone who fully understands and appreciates her position in life and is hugely grateful. She is happily married with two young children and has had successful careers that have seen her travel the world, first as a diving instructor, then as a consultant in the hospitality industry.
She also recently took on the role of the Honorary British Counsel in Phuket, emphasising how trusted and respected she is within the local community.
Whereas she is clearly and rightfully proud of her career achievements, it is Chantal’s efforts in helping others that is most remarkable. It is shining a light on the situation of those who are really in need and actually prompting action to help the “invisible people”, as they are often, unfortunately, referred to.
Chantal started volunteer work around 2002 with the Life Home Project Foundation, a non-profit organisation that helps “women and children suffering from HIV/AIDS in Thailand to have a better life with a caring home, educational opportunities and access to treatment.”
However, it was the devastating Tsunami on Boxing Day morning in 2004 that decimated numerous countries in the Indian Ocean region, leaving almost 230,000 people dead that really impacted Chantal. The holiday mecca of Phuket was hit hard with the stretch of idyllic beaches lining the west coast largely destroyed and the loss of life, both among locals and tourists, significant. Local communities in particular were left in a perilous state and were not immediately or reliably receiving assistance from the authorities.
“At this stage I was working at a five-star resort on the island, enjoying my job and incredibly grateful for my overall situation,” said Chantal.
“However, knowing what had happened, the magnitude of the devastation that the Tsunami brought and the desperate situation that many people and communities found themselves in was heart-breaking. It was frustrating when hearing first-hand recollections of the situation but being restricted due to my job and daily commitments, not being able to physically get out there and help those so desperately in need.
“I was, and still am, so fortunate to live on such a beautiful island, within such a fantastic, warm and welcoming community and, as such at the time, felt compelled to help. I always think it is important to give back and support whenever you can.”
“The house we were renting at the time in Kamala was washed away by the tidal wave during the Tsunami,” she said. “It was devastating.”
Support entailed getting hands-on with rebuilding efforts in local communities, specifically in the area that Chantal and her family lived. Chantal and her husband joined efforts in the nearby coastal area of Bangtao to clear rubble, to make the area safe and to help with rebuilding efforts of houses and buildings.
The Good Shepherd
Several years later, Chantal got involved with the Good Shepherd Phuket Town initiative. This project was started by a local nun on the island called Sister Lakana who, in 2010, designated a small strip of concrete in Phuket town as an area where predominantly Burmese children from local worker camps could convene and be protected from a myriad of daily dangers. Surrounded by chicken wire, the area served as a safe place where the children were free of potential abuse, accidents or being forced into horrific practices such as the sex trafficking trade. It would also serve as a place where the children could receive daily education and a nutritious meal. The children remain at the school daily, returning home in the evenings, typically until they reach the ages of 14-17 when they then may decide to return to their homeland.
In time, the strip of concrete was developed into a fully-fledged school, maintaining the purpose of providing a safe space and place to learn for local children in need. Today it welcomes 240 children daily who are taught nine subjects in total such as Maths, English and IT by eight fulltime teachers and a collection of volunteers. It provides the opportunity for children to learn and develop that they normally would not have. A few years ago, one of the girls who attended the school progressed to teach kindergarten classes at the school.
However, keeping the school running is a challenge, says Chantal. It is a charity initiative and thus relies on donations and the kindness of others to survive.
“Working on the basis that the one meal a day we provide for the children costs approximately 30 Thai baht (AU$ 1.24), multiplied by the number of students (240) and roughly the number of days per month (23) and it costs around 165,000 baht per month (about $6,800). This is before overheads and wages for the teachers and staff.
“When we were struggling financially, especially when COVID-19 hit and the true fallout of the pandemic was felt, we had to look at ways to cut costs, which was incredibly difficult to do. Coming from a business background, I crunched the numbers and we proposed cutting the daily meal which would provide a significant saving each month.
“However, once we relinquished the purely business perspective, we realised that we simply could not do this as, for many of the children, this is their only real meal of the day. It was heart-breaking when the true significance of this fact struck home and we very quickly scuppered the idea.”
Unsurprisingly, COVID hit Phuket hard, particularly the poorer communities. Unlike many Western nations, assistance from the government was meagre, leaving a multitude of communities facing a dire situation. It was arguably felt most in the various worker camps across the island where workers mainly from Burma were essentially abandoned to live in terrible conditions with little or no support.
In April 2020, Chantal helped drive an initiative through the Good Shepherd that would provide care packages consisting of essential goods and food directly to the camps. Many others, shocked at the plight of these forgotten people and communities, also stepped up and several food drives were established island-wide to help. They say in times of adversity that community spirit really shines through and this was one instance of exactly that.
“Naturally COVID was devastating,” says Chantal. “There is no getting away from that fact. However, in a strange way, it also served as a sort of positive in that it forced people to acknowledge the desperate reality facing so many in Phuket which in turn motivated them to help, to delve deeper into local communities to support those much less well off.”
The support drive initiated by Chantal during COVID obviously had to be funded, something that ultimately was done by the Good Shepherd. It meant a precarious balancing act was needed and further charity-themed ventures would be required.
Such regular charity drives were established and have helped enormously. Chantal tells me of an initiative a few years ago which strived to collect donations from all over the world which would provide a pair of school shoes as presents at Christmas. “Some of the children had never worn shoes never mind brand new shoes before, so it was quite a moment for them,” recalls Chantal.
Likewise, there is the annual Christmas Pantomime held in Phuket which helps raise much needed funds while also introducing theatre to the island and providing some good old-fashioned fun and cheer, something that everyone was grateful for given the recent challenging times. Christmas markets have been organised where people will showcase locally crafted goods and food. The leading sports bar on the island, Peppers Bar, carries out a weekly quiz where entrants’ fees all go directly to the charity. It’s not a huge amount but it is a steady source of income that helps.
Chantal has also overseen the organisation and facilitation of two charity balls where all funds raised go to the charity; the one ball she organised in 2009 made a net profit of 3 million baht, an extraordinary achievement.
There are also two charity shops that have been established on the island where goods are sold and all proceeds go to the Good Shepherd project. Predominantly second-hand but not always, the shops provide a wonderful space to treasure hunt and pick up an unusual or quirky gift – this author was personally delighted to stumble across a certain book he had been searching for unsuccessfully for several years on a visit there one day!
The shops also organise the “Wish for Christmas” campaign where donations can be made and toys and gifts can be given directly sections of the community such as local schools and old person’s homes. There is also a shop at the Blue Tree facility in Cherng Thalay where the owner will receive literally anything by way of a donation and then craft or re-work it into something that can be used as a gift and donated. A second shop has opened in the South of the Island in Rawai.
We are living in extremely testing times where adversity seems to be staring us in the face at every turn. However, the old adage is absolutely right in that there is always somebody worse off, somewhere. Chantal Fernandes realised this many moons ago and has dedicated herself to helping those far less well off than her.
She genuinely is an inspiration, so humble when she talks about the fantastic work she has done and continues to do. She makes you want to be a better person and do more to help others. The world needs a lot more people like Chantal Fernandes right now...
More information on the Good Shepherd Phuket Town charity and how you can donate and help can be found at their website; https://goodshepherdphukettown.com
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