Things I’ve Learned (Part 2)

When you talk to the students at the Starfish Foundation about what they’ve learned this year, you’ll hear everything from math to geography, the importance of plants to the finer points of accounting. They are dedicated to their work, and excited to continually learn new things through both school and the Starfish Foundation.

But in addition to the reading, writing, and arithmetic that everyone is expected to learn, the Starfish Scholars are all learning another important lesson: the importance of relationships.

“The most interesting thing that I have learned this year is the value of friendship with my classmates at the Foundation. I have also learned about many very good subjects that help me in school, such as history and language”
– Emerson, a 12 year old scholar.

Time and time again, this lesson is echoed by the students who are reflecting on their experiences with Starfish – in addition to safe place to learn and grow academically, the Starfish Foundation is fostering team building, healthy relationships, and a sense of community – something essential to emotional and mental well-being.30389139440_e827dfeb47_z

“The most important thing that I have learned this year is to be respectful with my classmates and my seniors, because it is with these people that I coexist. With respect, you can live in a good environment anywhere you go. Another very important thing that I learned is about companionship. Along with respect, fellowship is one of the values that are important to everyone and we should all try to improve.”
– Josselyn


Milena adds, “This year, I have met many new people that have become my friends. I have had a lot of fun with these new friends doing activities that take  place at the Foundation,” showcasing how the Starfish Foundation not only brings bright young minds together, but encourages them to thrive in social spaces.

It has been proven, over and over again, that friendships are vital to learning, self-confidence, life skills, priority setting, emotional health, and empowering people of all ages to make societal changes. That our scholars are able to develop relationships, and recognize their importance, through their participation in the Starfish Foundation, is vital to their current and future happiness and success.

We close today with a Maori proverb:

“What is the most important thing in the world? It is the people, it is the people, it is the people”. ( He aha te mea nui o te ao? He tangata, he tangata, he tangata).


Education: A Catalyst for Change

Guest Blogger: Jane Lorenzi is a senior at Marquette University in Milwaukee, WI, studying International Affairs and Spanish. She has been part of the Starfish family since 2014 and has volunteered both in Ecuador and the United States. She has also spent time in Chile, Argentina, and the Dominican Republic and is fiercely passionate about justice issues in Latin America.

Jane photo - credit Anna Jordan
Photo Credit: Anna Jordan

I’ve come to realize that material things rarely, truly empower people. Rather, it is the intangible things, such as education, that garner the most transformation. Education does not create dependencies; it sustains and empowers, allowing women in particular to be independent.

In a society where theft is a constant fear, education is a beacon of hope. What you learn in and outside of the classroom cannot be taken from you. Education is the catalyst for change, for development, for dreams that become realities, for peace.

Education allows individuals to empower themselves. With knowledge, they can make informed choices — about their health, about their relationships, about their futures. And it is perhaps the greatest hope that this knowledge will translate to understanding and tolerance, which in turn will work to create a more peaceful, just, compassionate world. A world in which every human being is given the opportunity to grow and evolve and improve and empower himself/herself and others, where every person is treated with dignity, respect, and love.

That’s what makes Starfish so cool.

It empowers its students to become leaders in their communities by supporting their academic needs. Focusing on education is a grass-roots approach, which puts power in the hands of locals who more fully understand the complex nature of the injustices that exist in their own communities.

That is not to say simply going to school will fix all the problems. The education system in Ecuador is broken in countless ways (I’ve yet to hear a positive anecdote about the Ministry of Education). Poorly trained teachers, ill-equipped classrooms, and relatively ineffective curriculum based mainly on rote memorization can deter children from being passionate about learning and/or interested in going to school. It’s often hard to explain to the students how important education is when their school day is more or less miserable and boring.

There are rays of hope though — that despite broken systems, going to school is definitely not all for naught. That education really does ignite change.

Like when Mikey beams about how much he loves English class and practicing his English with us volunteers.
Or when Cristhian talks about his passion for the sciences, biology especially, and how he doesn’t need help with science homework because he understands it.
Or when Maria Belén, one of Starfish’s first students to graduate high school, attends university to study medicine, pursuing her lifelong dream of becoming a pediatrician.

These remarkable students represent the beginnings of a new generation: a generation of passionate, inspired leaders and doers and shakers.
That sounds like a pretty beautiful future to me.

A future that Starfish is shaping, poco a poco.

10 Moments I’ll Never Forget

Guest Blogger, Mikki Spangler, is the Volunteer Coordinator for Starfish.

It has been such an honor serving as the Volunteer Coordinator for The Starfish Foundation the last three months. I have learned countless valuable lessons about both my personal and professional lives. I have made more special memories than I can fit into one blog post but here are a few of my favorite…

  1. The first day I arrived back at The Foundation after a long year away, my host brother and new staff member Julio and I both started crying as soon as we saw each other.
  2. The first time that one of our volunteers, Mia, conjugated a verb in the past tense everyone in the room started cheering for her. She is relatively new to Spanish speaking so this was a very exciting accomplishment.
  3. One night, after working at The Foundation all day, I mentioned to my host brother, Anderson, that I have my Spanish grammar lessons with me. He was so excited and immediately had me pull them out. We took turns testing each other on how to conjugate different irregular verbs. He was much better at it than I was.
  4. At one of the regular Saturday movie nights at The Foundation, it was really cool to see Starfish Scholar Arelisa take charge. Arelisa was one of the first students I felt close to last year and coming back a year later I have been able to see so much growth. She stood at the main entry collecting money, making change, and maintaining order (not always an easy task when working with a bunch of kids!).
  5. This hilarious moment when a street vendor was trying to sell me candy that embodies many of my experiences in Ecuador:
    Vendor: Try this candy!
    Me: What is it?
    Vendor: Just try it.
    Me: Ok, but what is it?
    Vendor: Yeah, try it, it is delicious.
    Me: Ok… Wow it actually is really good.
    Vendor: Yes, I know.
  6. After my host niece’s first birthday party the whole family was exhausted and no one wanted to cook. So Andres, my host brother, and I cooked Salchipapas. AKA French fries with fried hotdogs on top. We all ate on the couches (something we NEVER do) and watched a movie together. It was a perfect family day.
  7. In June, I had the opportunity to meet three Peace Corps volunteers at a different nonprofit here in Guayaquil. I am graduating from university in a year so Peace Corps has been one of my options for post-grad. After meeting them, I felt so inspired and excited by the work that they are doing. In July, I applied for the Peace Corps!
  8. My host mom is a Evangelical Christian so her family has some different customs and rules that I am not accustomed to. I often got teased and told on (in a fun, family way) when I painted my nails, wore makeup, and joked about my fake boyfriend. One of my favorite moments was with my host siblings when our mom was at church. As soon as she left, my host sister plucked my brother’s and my eyebrows. We felt so naughty and it was super fun. Lo siento mamá!
  9. A new and recurring moment that has been happening in my host home is Paula, the one year old, says “hola” and waves to me every time she sees me. Even if it is only five seconds later than the previous time. The whole family cracks up every time and it makes me feel so loved and included.
  10. At the end of the day, what excites me about this work is seeing the change that is made in our students’ lives. One very tangible moment of this was when one of our students, Maria, ran over to another volunteer and me with happy tears in her eyes to tell us that she was chosen to receive one of our scholarships. She told us how hard she has been working and how life has not been easy for her lately. These are the moments that matter.

Thank you to all the staff and students of The Starfish Foundation for making my summer so memorable. Los quiero por siempre.

Noche de Talentos

Every August the Starfish Foundation holds a “Noche de Talentos” or Talent Show. This spectacular night is a favorite for many. “The whole talent show was wonderful because each child could share their talent with the audience,” says Julio, former Starfish Scholar and current volunteer.

Administrators, staff, and volunteers work hard for about 3 months leading up to the event to make sure everything is ready. Some things that need to be taken into account include arranging decorations, attendance, audio, staging, and lighting. Misael, one of our educators, says, “We know that it is hard to do, but it’s not impossible.” The employees receive help from the parents as well who provide sandwiches or volunteer in another capacity.

The talents presented range from singing and dancing to acting to magic tricks and even tongue twisters! “This event is good because it allows the students to demonstrate what they like to do,” explains Misael.

Some performers had never performed in the event before, while others had done it in previous years’ Talent Nights. Ismael, a 14 year old scholar and first year performer showed his unique drawing talent. He says that although he was a bit afraid of how others may critic his skills, his favorite part of the show was going on stage and presenting his artwork.

Nayeli, also fourteen years old, had performed once before, and returned to the stage for her second year. “I have stage fright,” she admits, “I get very nervous before performances.” Still, she had a great experience: “We presented a pretty dance to all of the spectators and they seemed to like it because they applauded a lot”.

This year there were 20 acts total, several of which the audience particularly enjoyed. Among those included an amazing ballet performance between Pamela and Edison. Dancing was a common talent, and dancing acts included a mixture of tropical rhythms, artistic dance, and romantic and urban styles.

Other notable acts included 2 skits, the “Three Families” sketch and the “Everything is Coincidence” skit, a new act organized by the School for Parents which is led by our psychologist, Karen. When asked about their favorite acts from previous years, students and staff alike agreed that last year’s staff rendition of “Yo Nací aquí” was a hit!

At the end of Noche de Talentos there is an award – which was the highlight of the evening for scholar Jordy. “The uncertainty of knowing who won is exciting for everyone.” Whether they won or not, everyone did a fantastic job. Congratulations to everyone who participated in the show – it truly was a Noche de Talentos.

Volunteering Helps You Gain a New Appreciation for Life

Guest Blogger: Ellie McNalty is a high school Junior from York Pennsylvania where is actively involved in volunteer work – primarily with Mini-THON which raises money for pediatric cancer patients and Aevidum, which is a peer mentorship and mental health advocacy group. She’s also on the student advisory council for Four Diamonds, the parent organization for Mini-THON. She first heard about Starfish at HOBY this June.

Volunteering is not only a rewarding experience, but it is also an incredible way to learn a new appreciation for life. I find that every volunteer position I hold not only helps others, but it teaches me so many things about myself and my perspective of the world.

I am going into my junior year of high school, and I am quite involved in organizations within my school and community. I am an officer of two service based clubs (Mini-Thon and Aevidum), a member of a student leadership council to a non-profit (Four Diamonds), a small group leader at my church, and more. I’ve long since learned that high school is crazy, but getting ready for college is even crazier.


Though some students join clubs for the purpose of college applications, I have a completely different motivation for why I’m super involved. I volunteer because helping other people brings me so much genuine joy on a day-to-day basis. I’ve worked with many students who seem to be volunteering for the wrong reasons, and they never seem to be satisfied the way that I am when I see the effects of my work.

Every group that I’m involved in benefits someone or something that is truly in need. I am heavily involved in a program at my school that raises money for pediatric cancer patients, and I can easily say that I’ve been around for many moments of success and just as many moments of failures. But no matter what happens, I can never give up on my responsibilities as a volunteer. Yes, it definitely gets stressful and overwhelming at times, but when we reach the final moment of our big event, the incredible number of people we see before us looking to contribute is always so worth the effort we put in to get there.

I volunteer so that I can give opportunities to those who don’t have them.

I am so blessed to be a healthy teenage girl, and I want to use that gift to give to those who aren’t as fortunate. I am so humbled to have been a part of the team that raised over $65,000 for kids with cancer; it’s moments like that which remind me that my struggles are so small compared to the needs of others.

Volunteering has helped me to become such a better person. Not only does it bring me immense joy to help others, but it reveals the strengths and weaknesses within my own life. I can’t say I’ve never had a bad attitude while volunteering, and I know that I am far from perfect, but I will never stop being super involved because volunteering is a part of me. Helping others is an incredible thing, and I volunteer so that I can help as many others as I possibly can.

What We’ve Learned: Thoughts from Our Scholars

We caught up with 3 Starfish Scholars – Uberlinda, Leonardo, and Juleysi – to chat about their school year, and see what they’ve been learning at school and with Starfish. We asked them what the most important lesson this year was.

Uberlinda, a 14 year old student went first. “Plants are important!” she exclaimed right off the bat. With a few more seconds to think on the subject, she added, “I realize I have learned a lot this year. There are two places that I go to where I learn a lot every day. These places are my school and the Starfish Foundation. In my school, I have learned about basic subjects like social studies, mathematics, and natural sciences, with the latter being a subject that I really like and that I want to learn more about.

The other place where I have learned many interesting things is the (Starfish) Foundation that I have attended ever since the beginning of this school year. Here we learn a lot and I really liked last month because of how much we talked about nature. We even made a small orchard and we planted many kinds of plants. While this was happening, the educators explained to us the benefits that plants give to us and their great importance for the environment, medicine, and food. This was great to learn because plants help us, even when we’re at home.”

We couldn’t agree more! Plants are super important. To see some ways plants help us everyday – providing food, water, medicine, and even clothes – you can check out this educational video.

29288735681_1a98bb1312_zNext we caught up with Leonardo. He’s a 10th grade student specializing in accounting, so it’s no surprise what he thinks the most important lesson of the year is. “So far this year, I have learned a lot about accounting processes and accounting in general. At the beginning of this year, they asked for some materials, which without the help and finances from the foundation, I would not have been able to acquire. This really incentivized me to be a good student, which I am very pleased with.”

We’re so pleased to have been able to help Leonadro obtain the materials he needed, and couldn’t be prouder of his work in school. The last scholar we chatted with on this topic is 12 year old Juleysi.

When asked what she learned this year, she said, “I have learned about math and language. The most interesting thing during this period was how to use padlet, an interactive board online! I really liked this because you can put notes on there that we all can see and there’s so much more to it!”

29080076240_a05404ecb3_zFor those that don’t know, Padlet is an online bulletin board that can be shared between students, teachers, and other collaborators – it allows each person to add images, links, videos, and more.

Well, that’s all for now! Be sure to check back next week, so you can hear all about our annual Starfish Talent Show – we can’t wait to show off our skills!

It’s the Little Things: Thoughts on Volunteering

24008880464_01b6136db6_zGuest Blogger: Laura Seaberg has been volunteering for Starfish since December 2014. This summer, she spent time volunteering in Ecuador tutoring members of the Starfish Family in English.


It’s a silly thing to get stuck on, really, but it’s my first day, and my brain still feels bogged down with the soporific slime of plane travel, so I’m easily distracted.

“Los hice,” I say to the two Starfish staff near me. “I made those.”

I am pointing to an unassuming bunch of magnets on the office’s door. These dinky little adornments that say ¡Muchas gracias!gus in Starfish’s characteristic blue and yellow were one of my first projects I ever made for Starfish when I started in December 2014 as a Social Media Intern. I remember fiddling with Paint software, nervously adjusting text colors and wishing that design experience could be directly transmitted into my brain via radiation.

The benefits and drawbacks of a virtual volunteer experience are pretty obvious–the cliche about working in your pajamas is REALLY true, and also as expected, sometimes the tangible benefits of your work aren’t obvious. But I happily filled a variety of virtual roles in Starfish for two and a half years because I saw the evidence that the organization was working so hard to make a difference, and succeeding at that.

But all of a sudden, something I had done by clicking a mouse and sending some pixels off into the ether had become something physical to adorn the space. There are tangible effects of our intangible efforts, I realized, but when you are removed from the effects you are having, it can be hard to see the whole picture: especially the positive effects of others.

From the United States, I had never really given thought to the nitty-gritty of how Starfish helped. I knew the facts, like the amount of tutoring and resulting increase in grades, but those were facts instead of truths. Sitting among the tables in the classroom in Ecuador, I could hear the educadores on all sides of me giving homework advice or messing around with a malfunctioning laptop. For the first time, I fully understood by the phrase the Starfish family. It means that you are one of many, making changes that you may or may not be able to see, but you are never working alone.

I discovered so many things in Ecuador that added nuance and dimension to my appreciation of Starfish. Online, it had been impossible to conceptualize what a space like Starfish means for the community. As entire families crammed into the classroom to watch Moana, I witnessed how the foundation (literally and figuratively) brings the community together. Nor had I realized the breadth of extracurricular activities that the foundation offers. Community service groups, therapy groups, leadership school, and many clubs all enrich the lessons and tutoring sessions.

And it wasn’t just the Starfish Scholars and tutoring students who could benefit from the foundation’s resources. Parent meetings taught about the university process, and little siblings often graced the foundation with their wide-eyed, shy presences. Even pastimes were many and varied: I tutored students in English, yes, but I also played chess, Twister, red light green light, and soccer (although ‘playing soccer’ might be a bit of an exaggeration–the kids ran circles around me).

There is so much MORE than just the little section of the world we live most of our lives in. A favorite author of mine asserts that one of the most important things we can do is to imagine others complexly, and I strive to do that all the time. But a trip to Starfish helped me appreciate the complexity that already exists, formed by the hard work and time of Starfish’s staff and students. Their tangible impact is more than apparent in everything from the brightly painted foundation walls to the increases in grades that Starfish Scholars experience.

So yes, on this trip I found my own tangible impact, but I also became aware of an entire network of hardworking, kind people who do not usually speak to the Starfish base in the US. Going forward, I know that they are why Starfish works. I will never lose the awareness I have of the work of others and the changes they are making for good.

The School Year So Far


The school year is now well underway, and our scholars, teachers, and volunteers are keeping busy. Here’s a sample of what they’ve been up to over the last 2 months:

  • Thanks to 2 new volunteers, Mia and Laura, Starfish now has two new clubs! Mia runs a science club where they do experiments, and Laura directs some theater and improvisation groups. Students are very excited about the experiments they are doing at the science club and with the acting club.
  • On June 25th, the teachers, along with the students, celebrated a tribute to the person who is most important in their lives. This was a very special day because the students could enjoy a lovely day with their parents where they played different games – games like inquisitive questions, blind baby food challenge, guess who’s your father, and indoor soccer. “It was a day filled with hugs, emotions and interactions between the students and their parents”, says one participant.
  • The Community Service group held a contest to see who could collect the most bottles to recycle. Not only did this have a huge positive impact on the environment, but also acted as a fundraiser for the group.
  • The therapy group held a “Day of Cinema” as a fundraiser. The proceeds will be used to buy shirts for the group.
  • Throughout the month of June the students were assigned a theme: “How to carry out an academic investigation.” The students worked in pairs to do research about the provinces and capitals, tourist sites, and myths and legends of Ecuador. The last week in June the students presented their research through expositions that each pair created.
  • In Arts and Crafts Club, they made a wallet and change purse out of foamy papers. “The students are continually learning different techniques that they can used and elaborate on with every project”, explains one volunteer.
  • The Leadership School covered the qualities of a good leader and various types of leadership. Through different activities, students identified their leadership style; everyone who participated had a lot of fun
  • Soccer Club continues to be a favorite. It has grown so that there are now 3 separate groups, each of which train twice a week.

Starfish Spotlight: Josué and Dennis

There’s no better way to learn about Starfish than to sit down with a few of our scholars and ask them about their lives. This week, we caught up with Josué and Dennis.

We asked them about their goals, plans for the future, and role models. For both, going to college is high on the list of priorities. The question of whether or not they plan to continue their education is met with “of COURSE I’m going to go to university!”

To obtain this goal, both students realize the importance of hard work now, “One of my first goals is to finish high school while being an excellent student and getting good grades. This would help me to have a good foundation for when I take the university acceptance exam,” explains Josué. He hopes to get a career in technology – something like systems or computer engineering or programming. “It’s something I’m passionate about”, he says. Then adds, “and it is a career that you can get a lot of work in many countries.”

Dennis hopes to one day provide support for his parents, and although he doesn’t mention his exact plans for the future, he echoes Josué’s enjoyment of computer programming .

As for role models, both reference their parents. “They have helped me so much,” explains Josué simply. “My parents are my inspiration,” says Dennis,
“I admire my mom and my dad greatly because they sacrifice a lot so that I can have many things, such as food, an education, and a place to live.” He thanks both his parents for the help they give him with school and homework, as well as working very hard “so that the whole family can be happy.”

Although the future is never predictable, one thing is clear: both these young men have bright futures ahead of them, and we know they’ll make their families very proud.

Monthly Recap: clubs, service, mother’s day, and lessons in leadership

From camps to goal setting and from community service to soccer club, the Starfish scholars in Ecuador have been keeping busy. What exactly have they been doing?

  • A week long camp hosted by Peace Corp volunteer Bonnie where kids learned about HIV through hands-on games and soccer
  • Those scheduled to do community service this year met to share ideas about how they’d like to get involved and give back
  • The soccer club, a crowd favorite, started meeting again again
  • They held the first ever meeting of the new craft club
  • For Mother’s Day, students went to the homes of some of the mother’s to sing for them. It was a beautiful moment. The moms were completely surprised and very touched. “They could feel the affection that we all have for them”, reflected one participant.
  • The Leadership School is back! Students are back to partaking in a variety of learning opportunities that gives them the fundamentals they need to practice in their own lives and to prepare them for future professional careers.

It is an exciting time at Starfish, and we have even more activities planned for the future. Soon, we will formalize a computer club and dance club, and in August we’ll host our annual talent show.

If you are interested in donating items in-kind specifically for extracurricular success, you can support our teams and clubs, by purchasing an item off our Amazon Wish List.