Starfish Scholar Spotlight: Jack Neira

This week, we sat down with Jack to talk to him about his education, Starfish, and his hobbies in his free time.

Neira_Jack_2017_preview.jpegHi Jack! Where do you go to school?
Jack: I study at the school known as the Philanthropic, whose full name is the Benemérita Philanthropic Society of Guayas. Yes, it is a rather long name.

What makes your school interesting?
Jack: This school, which is located in Guayaquil, is a technical school. I learn different subjects than students who choose to get a general baccalaureate.

Awesome! And you’re also a Starfish scholar?
Jack: Yes, I belong to the afternoon session at the Starfish Foundation.


What have you learned from your time with the Starfish Foundation?
Jack: At the Starfish Foundation, I have learned many good things. During these last months, the most interesting thing that I learned was: periods of history, in the classes given by the educators. Also, I have learned how to use Microsoft Word, which has been very important because it has helped me to complete my research.

Sounds like you’ve gained a lot from this. When you’re not busy with school and Starfish, what do you enjoy doing?
Jack: In my free time, I really like to read books and other documents. I also like music also and one of my hobbies is playing the guitar. I know that I am not a professional, but I practice a lot in order to play well. In terms of sports, I practice basketball with my friends, but this activity is done just for fun.

We can’t thank Jack enough for spending time sharing his story with us.

Want to support scholars like Jack? $30 provides a month of programming for a Starfish Scholar! Or, you can join our StarfishSearch Scavenger Hunt to help raise funds and awareness for the organization.


A Day in the Life of a Starfish Scholar

Ever wonder what a typical day is like for one of our Starfish Scholars? Well… we asked and they answered:


Juleysi, age 12:juleesi.jpg

Right after my school day ends, I return home, hand in hand with either my mom or my dad, who come to pick me up from school. I attend the Starfish Foundation but when I do not have to go, I do a lot of housework with my mom. I love music and during the day I listen to music, even when I do homework. Also, I like to read and on occasion, I’ll go out and play with my friends who are very fun, after I’ve finished my homework.


Leonardo, 10th grade:

When I have free time, I spend it at home, listening to music. I like reggaeton music and watching TV programs. The coolest thing that I do during my free time is play soccer. I really like playing soccer. Last year, I was even part of a soccer training group at the Foundation.



Milena, age 14:

When it comes to my hobbies, I always mention that I like to sing, dance, chat, and listen to music. These are the things that I do when I don’t have homework and the days when I don’t go to the Foundation.


Ponce_Emerson_carnet_2017Emerson, age 12:

When I am not in school, I have a great time with my friends, playing soccer, freeze tag, and many other games. Also, my friends and I like to sing, dance, jump, etc. We have a lot of fun like this.




Josselyn, age 14:

When I get out of school and arrive at home, the first thing that I do is quickly go to see my youngest little sister. I am the oldest of three siblings. At home, when I have free time, I spend it watching TV, chatting, and sometimes I get hungry so I go to eat something. I also play soccer with my neighborhood friends.


Are You Ready for Starfish Search?!

In exactly one month the 2nd annual Starfish Search will be upon us!

If you participated last year, you know that the Starfish Search is a time for you to gather your friends, embrace your creativity, and have a Ton. Of. Fun. while raising awareness (and funds) for the Starfish Foundation.


This year we’re making a few changes to make this years hunt bigger, better, and bolder than ever before.

  1. We’re upgrading the hunt from 12 hours to 72 hours … that means you’ll have 6x as much time to complete items. The list will be published at 8am EST on the morning of October 28th. You will have until 8am EST on October 31st to complete and submit your tasks.
  2. More items! There will be more chances to express your creativity, more chances to do service for others, more smiles and laughs, and more opportunities to share your love for the Starfish Foundation. Ah, the memories we’ll make!
  3. Teams can now be compiled of members from around the world! That’s right – You don’t have to live in the same town (or even same country) as your teammates. So gather up your friends and family and see how well you can do!
  4. New prizes – Don’t have the time or energy to be super competitive and go all in? No worries! You can still win amazing prizes. Pick you favorite items and focus on making your submissions as thoughtful/creative/funny/impactful as possible, and you may be chosen for a special prize!2

Are you sold yet? If so, there are TWO ways to participate:

  1. Create your team. Find 1 – 4 other people who want to compete alongside you (from anywhere in the world), pick a team name, and sign up today.
  2. Make new friends! When you sign up, indicate that you don’t have a team and we’ll connect you with Starfish supporters and friends around the globe.31.jpg

So how does the whole thing work?

Each team member will need to pay $20 per person (or $90 if registering five people at one time for a team). All members registered by October 14th will receive an official Starfish Foundation t-shirt (while supplies last) – you may be asked to wear this shirt throughout the hunt at various times.

On the morning of the hunt, we’ll post a list (in English and Spanish) right here on our blog that will have a number of fun and weird tasks for you to complete – some will be about raising awareness, some will be about community service, some will be to learn more about Ecuador, and some will be just for fun or to test your creativity. Once you sign up, you’ll receive additional information and hints in the time leading up to the hunt. Team captains will receive instructions on how to submit items and tips for organizing their teams.

How exciting is that?? We know this year is going to be even more awesome than last year (And that’s saying something), so go on… Get your friends and family in on what may be the most fun they’ll have this fall!

Any questions, feel free to email Amanda at


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.

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.