Guest 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.