Throw Back Thursday: Lessons from Ecuador

This week, we’ve decided to take a trip down memory lane to see what various scholars, educators, and volunteers have learned through their experiences with Starfish:

“There is a universal language spoken through hugs, smiles, and laughter.” – Martin, volunteer

527e6-dscn2461“It’s important to give kids more ways to shine than just the classroom or the soccer field” – Danny, volunteer

“My wonderful opportunity to serve as an intern at the Starfish Foundation provides me with a greater insight of issues and circumstances worldwide, and has truly made me more grateful for the everyday things I have access to instantaneously. I have been handed so much in my life and I am thankful for the opportunity Starfish has given me to give back.” – Katrina, volunteer

“I have become more responsible, my skills have grown which makes me proud because I feel that I am a very capable person.” – Joselyn, scholar

“Without the people of the Starfish Foundation, I wouldn’t have learned more Spanish and how to work with their students. Additionally, without the students of Flor, I wouldn’t have learned how to work with English language learners and develop more skills as an educator.” – Katie, volunteerIntegration the eyes of a volunteer.

“I’ve learned to express myself and am comfortable speaking in front of the other people on various subjects.” – Julio, scholar

“Community can’t be taught, it must be built with time, trust, and consistency.” – Martin, volunteer

“Through reading, I learn more about myself and the world around me, and it has helped me to become who I am today.” – Sara W., scholar

Happy 5th Birthday Starfish!

Earlier this week, the Starfish Foundation celebrated it’s 5th birthday! That’s five years of providing scholarship, tutoring, and leadership development to youth living in extreme poverty in Guayaquil, Ecuador. Over that time frame, Starfish has grown and grown – and currently serves over 120 scholars in Guasmo and Flor de Bastion.

Jenn and beth.jpgThe idea for the Starfish Foundation developed after co-founders Beth and Jenn volunteered for a year in Ecuador, where they volunteered at a shelter for former street kids. A lot of these kids had no family or little support at home. Though many of them had the motivation to study, they lacked financial resources to be able to attend school once leaving the shelter.

Though public schools in Ecuador are free, families often still struggle to provide all the necessary materials (uniforms, books, school supplies, etc) while living on minimum wage and trying to feed a whole family. For many, the easiest solution was to not go to school. The Starfish Foundation works to fill a need that focuses on the importance of education as a catalyst for future success of each student and their communities, and provides scholarships and mentoring to students in financial need who have the motivation to continue their studies despite challenging circumstances.

But the success comes not just from funding scholars, but also seeing bright, caring, thoughtful individuals find the means to achieve their goals. It’s about seeing faces light up with smiles. It’s about promoting confidence through talent shows and interviews. It’s about creating a sense of community through outreach. It’s about improving our environment by encouraging sustainable living and recycling. It’s about service and instilling the values of hard work and giving back to the community in our scholars. It’s about big dreams, and big plans, and big ideas.

It’s about giving every scholar the boost they need to be the best version of themselves.

Over the last 5 years, there have been a lot of incredible moments for Starfish. Some highlights for Beth include:

  • On the trip last year, there was a moment when we got together all the “original” Starfish Scholars. It was kind of like the end of A League of Their Own – very nostalgic to remember back those early days, but impressive to see how these young adults (now) have grown up and are now giving back to Starfish as employees or volunteers!
  • Bringing my parents and best friend (basically my sister, in Spanish they call her my ñaña) to see Starfish. They are SO supportive and it was so special to have them meet our Scholars and their families!
  • The experience of growing our Board this fall. It was really the first time we had done anything quite like this – but the interviews with so many WONDERFUL people were delightful. I have loved getting to know our new members and seeing their positive energy. They have already started to give back in so many extraordinary ways!
  • Our 5th birthday! It was a tiring week, and a challenging time to see our country divided in the election, but in the midst of stress and discord, it was something to celebrate. The amount of people who wished me a happy birthday that day — I wondered if I should double-check my birth certificate 😉

As we look back, we’re so thankful to everyone who has been a part of this journey – we’re thankful for the support, friendship, prayers, and donations. As we look back, we know it is also important to look ahead, and look forward to continuing to grow and serve in the coming years. Some of our goals include:

  • Putting together a robust U.S. Operations team. We’re well on our way to doing so – an amazing set of Managers / Advisers for Development, Communications, and Volunteer Management, efficient Admin team of our Sr. Admin Assistant, Accountant, and Tech Guru, and an amazing team of Social Media interns. We have work to do, though, in creating the best structure to maximize capacity and efficiency – and I’d love to see us get to a great point with that.
  • Officially registering in Ecuador, buying land, and building our dream “house.” It’s the longest, most complicated process EVER, but we are nearing the end, and that’s pretty incredible.
  • Supremely increasing the attendance at our Giving Tuesday and An Evening for the Stars (Baltimore Benefit Dinner) events. We have some SNAZZY new tricks up our sleeve (this year, for example, just your presence at any Giving Tuesday results in a $10 donation to Starfish – thanks to a generous match!)
  • Seeing the amount of people who learn about Starfish continue to increase!

I hope you can agree it’s been an incredible Journey, and yet an even more amazing one awaits us. I also hope you’ll join me in wishing Starfish a very warm and loving HAPPY BIRTHDAY.


More Than a Magic Night – a Talent Night!

Henry here, and have I got news for you! Our little starfish recently hosted their second annual talent show at the main Starfish site in Flor, Guayaquil. Over 100 students participated in the show as well as 11 staff members and 8 international volunteers. You can watch the show yourself here, and be amazed by their performances.


“The objective of this event is to showcase the talents of each and every one of our members, this way they can secure the interpersonal relationships, own the stage, and increase self-confidence”, explain Jessica Párraga and Maria Salazar, Starfish teachers, when I ask them why the Talent Show is important to The Starfish Foundation.

“Many values learned in the talent show night were responsibility, closeness, and fellowship among the kids in the foundation. These helped them be more open, have self-confidence, and to make decision that will help them become active leaders in their families and communities. They also learned the true meaning of teamwork,” adds one of their teachers, Pamela Rodriguez.

The show was open to students, teachers, volunteers, and international visitors – each showcasing their skill and sharing a piece of themselves and their culture. Family and friends of students and volunteers, as well as host families to our international volunteers, came out to enjoy the day.

The students practiced for over a month, improving the details of their performances: choreography, acting, painting, singing, and so much more.

I checked in with Luiggi Pluas, one of the student performers to find out about his participation in the show:

“For talent show night I had 3 songs. The first one I sang with my friend Ronny, “Me Voy Enamorando,” (I’m falling in love). The second one I did solo.

When it was show time I was very nervous, but when the music started I tried to do my best; it seems I did a great job because I waited a long time for the cheering to end. I had so much fun! In my last performance I danced to traditional music of Guayaquil with a few other dancing partners. We put so much effort into it, and we did a great job.

The end of the event was nice because everyone started telling their experiences getting there. We all took pictures with the North American volunteers. We made unique memories that will be hard to forget.”outside

WOW. What an unforgettable experience. I also talked to Joselyn del Valle, who acted as the emcee for the night, about her thoughts on the Talent Show:

“In the talent show night I was cheering and introducing every single one of my classmates according to the talent they were going to perform. It was an incredible night!

I also danced to the song “Guayaquileño” with my dance team. For this dance we practiced 4 or 5 times so everything would be perfect and we could all learn our choreography.

My favorite part was the performance by the teachers. They went on stage, dressed in white, the lights were off and the cellphone lights were on. They sang the song “Yo Nací Aqui,” (I was born here). It was a beautiful and moving performance.”

With all this enthusiasm and talent, I know these scholars will continue to do amazing things inside and outside the classroom.


xxx Henry

Redefining Happiness Part 2: A Thank You

Hello again! Remember my good friend Katie Malone from last week who shared her volunteer experience in Ecuador? This week, she has some thank-yous to share and some final reflections on the infectiousness of happiness. Thanks for reading!


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It is so difficult to put in to words what kind of an impact these wonderful people have made in my life, but I will do my best:

I thank my host family for allowing me in to their home, taking care of me when I was sick (homemade chicken noodle soup cures upset stomachs and hearts), giving me oil to rub on itchy bug bites, showing me how to flush their toilet, washing my clothes, feeding me until I couldn’t eat another bite, and simply being my Ecuadorian family.

Thank you for allowing me to witness your kindness, happiness, laughter, and joy of being together as a family. It made the pessimistic things that mattered in my life back in Ohio seem so, so small. Thank you for giving me a new perspective on the world and showing me what is most important in life.

Also, thank you to the patient, fun, kind, and compassionate workers at Starfish! You were so understanding while trying to comprehend my pre-kindergarten level Spanish and when giving me anything I needed for the English classes I taught. You included me in your daily routine and made sure students who had English homework felt comfortable enough to ask me (or get one of you to ask me) for help.

Lastly, thank you to all of the students who completed my English classes and worked diligently to complete homework assignments, practice the ABC’s, and participate in my review games as if they were fútbol games in the Copa América. You have inspired me to become a better teacher through your dedication and motivation as students and as members of your community and families. Most of you have already gone through more difficult situations and have endured more hardships than I could even imagine. In a way, you are all role models because you continue to learn and thrive, in spite of the negativity in your lives. I thank you so much for pushing me to be a better educator for my future students.

Happiness pulses through each one of you. It is more infectious than any mosquito, spider, cockroach, or other bug we Americans are afraid of.

I thank you for making me a more adventurous, confident, and loving person.

Most importantly, I thank you for being happy.

Gracias Victor’s Vision and Hogar del Niño!

Two weeks ago I had the exciting opportunity to travel to Chulucanas, Peru to visit Victor’s Vision – a non-profit started by Villanova alum and friend of Starfish co-founder Beth Awalt –  Emily Felsenthal.  Victor’s Vision is a non-profit that provides students with the resources, support and guidance necessary to pursue higher education as a means to escape poverty.  They do this through after-school academic classes in the core subjects everyday with certified teachers.  Students start Victor’s Vision in 2nd grade and continue through college – a goal that was only a dream for most students before they entered Victor’s Vision.  In the province where Victor’s Vision works, only 37% of finish primary school, and a mere 4% complete university.  All Victor’s Visions students are on a path to making university a dream come true!

The four main programs at Victor’s Vision are academic classes, field trips, nutrition and parent workshops.  Overall it was a wonderful experience and we aspire to accomplish much of what they have accomplished!

While in Chulucanas, I also had the opportunity to visit a shelter for children and teens who were either abandoned by their families or in a dangerous home situation.  The shelter is doing a lot of great work with very limited resources and personel.  Below are some pictures from the shelter.

Check out Victor’s Vision website and like them on Facebook to learn more about this great initiative in the neighboring country of Peru!  Also check out Hogar del Niño Alto Piurano on Facebook!  Thank you to both organizations for being such wonderful hosts and teaching us about Peru and your work!

Lunch time at the shelter.

Sally, 4 years old, a new arrival at the shelter.  
For 4 days straight that beautiful and contagious smile never left her face! 

Hermana Maria Luisa, director of Hogar del Niño Alto Piurano with Starfish Co-Founder Jenn, and Starfish Volunteer, Angelo.

A hungry child can’t study!

Last week we talked about how the rain is affecting the families of Guayaquil and the whole coastal region of Ecuador.  Not only are houses and streets flooding, causing damages to homes and bringing new illness – but the alimentación (nutrition) of already marginalized families may be taking a hit as well.  As reported in Ecuador’s newspaper “El Universo” many rice plantations and the areas surrounding them are currently flooded, cutting off access and driving up prices.  Rice is a staple food in Ecuador, eaten 2 or 3 times a day – and sometimes the only thing a family could afford at what was a mere 30 cents a pound.  As of March 3 rice was at 37 cents a pound, a 23% increase and a huge burden for many families.

Other food hit by rising prices due to the flooding include tomatoes, berries, fish and beans.  These prices are reportedly rising as much as 40%.

Find out at more at:

As part of our 2013-2014 programming Starfish will be providing a healthy snack at all tutoring sessions and monthly meetings as well as providing educational charlas (talks) throughout the year about healthy eating & living habits!  With this new initiative we hope to instill healthy habits and increase the ability of our students to study effectively without the pangs of hunger as a distraction.

Flor de Bastión students enjoying a healthy snack of yogurt, fruit and granola at the October 2012 monthly meeting.

Bienvenidos – Welcome to Starfish 2013-2014!

The new class of 2013-2014 Starfish Scholars has been selected – with many familiar faces, and a few new ones!  Once again we will be working in the 2 neighborhoods of Guasmo and Flor de Bastion.  Stay tuned in the coming weeks to meet our new scholars!

Congratulations to Ana, Anthony, Arelisa, Argenis, Betsabeth, Briggette, Carlos, Cristhian, Dayanna, Eddy, Elian, Evelyn, Genesis, Geovanny, Jerson, Joel, Karolayn, Lili, Maria, Maria Belen, Marlon, Milena, Pamela, Samantha, Solange, Steve & William!

We look forward to working with them in the 2013-2014 school year, however this year the President of Ecuador has decided to start school one month later – in May – to accomodate the many schools that often open late due to flooding in the rainy season.

Want to learn more about rainy season? Check out this picture I took last year and for our spanish readers – read how many parts of Guayaquil have been declared in a state of emergency of last Saturday’s torrential rains.

Center of Guayaquil, April 2012. 
The neighborhoods in which Starfish works are not blessed to have paved roads in all areas, making rainy season an even messier scene than the one above.

Our top "battle star" winner in Flor: ARELISA!

Arelisa is a ball of energy. She is the first to speak up when decisions need to be made or responsibilities need to be completed. Measuring in at a good 6 inches shorter than most of the other Scholars does not stop her from asserting her opinions. She consistently brought in the best grades all year out of all Flor de Bastión Scholars. She is a great leader from head to toe. She can take charge of a meeting, quiet a crowd, and knows when to take a step back.

Arelisa, working on nutrition activities at a Starfish meeting in November, with a healthy bowl of yogurt for a snack.

One of my favorite leadership moments with Arelisa all year was when we were electing officers for our tutoring program – President, VP, etc. The obvious choice would have had her in one of these top roles. But she pulled me aside first…”Jenn, don’t you think Milena would make a great President? I know she’s quiet but I think we need new leaders.” 

Milena, working on some homework.

Wow! Milena ended up being elected President by her peers based on Arelisa’s campaign to elect someone new with lots of potential. Arelisa was able to recognize in her peer a quiet potential for leadership that has blossomed into a great balance of leadership within our Flor de Bastion Starfish Scholars. These are the kinds of skills we wish to see in our Scholars. With more leadership like Arelisa’s I have lots of faith that our scholars will help transform their families, their communities and the world!

Evelyn, Samantha, Milena, Lili and Arelisa at the September Starfish “Integration” Day — an event focused on building community between Scholars in both neighborhoods!

Our top "battle star" winner in Guasmo: STEVE!

In our most recent survey, one of the questions we asked Scholars was: What are two things you like best about the tutoring program? Steve had a very unique answer – going to buy snack.

Steve, with the view of Guasmo behind him.

You see, part of our Scholars’ community service promise is to help me out with various projects. When we started giving a small snack a few months ago I asked for a volunteer on the first day to go buy $1 worth of mandarin oranges. Steve jumped out of his seat to help – every single day that week. After a while I didn’t have to ask for volunteers – Steve just went and bought the oranges, even when I was out for two weeks.

Steve (right) and Geovanny at the front of the Starfish meeting. They are always willing to help!

This is the perfect example of Steve’s good nature and passion to help others. He plays around like any 12 year old boy, and more than once I’ve had to remind him to be quiet during homework time – but when it comes to lending a helping hand, Steve is always the first to the gate.

Steve, working on a project at a Starfish monthly meeting.

Steve is a great teacher for me too. If I have to go buy something in the neighborhood, I often take him with me. He knows how to fix things and where to go to buy the materials – or better yet how to fix them without the materials. He knows where you can get milk for 50 cents per liter instead of the 80 or 90 cents you pay in most other stores. He is resourceful and street-smart – and only 12 years old.

Steve, getting creative on a craft project after tutoring.

Steve also comes from the most economically impoverished family we have in our Guasmo neighborhood. It is for students like Steve that Starfish exists. He could easily drop out of school to work to support his family – earning a few bucks here and there helping his father in construction. In his free time he could hang out with the other kids and fall into the temptations of the street in a process callejización.

Steve in his modest home in Guasmo.

But instead he goes to Starfish. His mother is a full-time stay at home mom of 6 kids, while his father works occasional jobs in construction when available, bringing home about $180/month or less than 2/3 of the current minimum wage. Sometimes he doesn’t eat 3 meals a day…or sometimes he doesn’t even eat 1 meal a day. But you can be sure he’ll be at Starfish bright and early with a smile and a hand ready to help!

Genesis and Steve at a Starfish meeting this past summer!

-Jenn Zocco, Director of Ecuador Programs

School’s out for "summer"!

The school year has ended.  Our students just finished taking their final exams and are ready for vacation!  One way Starfish was able to help this year was to support our students in some special projects and practicums required of our older students.  Betsabeth shares with us all that she learned from her experience participating in a play as part of her Language Arts class!

Picture above is the set Betsabeth helped assemble and paint!
She writes…
“The House of Dolls”
This is a play about a husband that treats his wife like a doll and at the same time they have other problems because the wife also tricks him with the lawyer.  This play was really great because we learned how to understand the various characters.  It was great because we all supported each other.  Also we understood that this isn’t just a play but it happens in real life too.  This helped us to reflect on many things that we sometimes ignore and we were able to understand that we can’t hurt the people we love the most!