Meet Chantal Fernandes, for whom helping others is second nature

✦ “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.

Desperate situation

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.