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.


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.


How do you form a leader?

This week, two of our educadores, Maria Salazar and Joel Baque, collaborated to write a blog about leadership. Maria and Joel are both noteworthy leaders in the Flor and Guasmo communities, respectively.  They serve as models of hope and inspiration for the current Starfish scholars, and we are thankful for the reflection they share with us! 

How is a leader formed? 
“A leader includes others, helping them to discover essential skills they can put to use to achieve a common goal.” 

One of the experiences that can form us as a leader occurs during the period of our schooling, during which we acquire knowledge and learn from our challenges and experiences that develop from our interactions with others and group work. During group work, we are able to discover the different abilities that each person possesses. 

The different talents that we possess make us unique and special, and together, we can combine our different talents to help us reach our proposed goal. For this reason, we, the Starfish Foundation, help high school aged students to polish and refine their talents and in some cases, discover them, in such a way that converts them into leaders capable of being guides and examples for the younger students. 

Will you help us to form leaders? Join us, and become a part of our family! 

With love, 
Maria Salazar & Joel Baque 

Maria Salazar 
Joel Baque 

en español:
“El líder incluye a los demás y ayuda a descubrir aptitudes esénciales para llegar a una meta en común.”

Una de las experiencias que podemos tener como un líder, es en la etapa de colegio, en  el cual se adquieren conocimientos en base a retos y vivencias que en grupo se desarrollan, en ella podemos descubrir las diferentes aptitudes que cada persona posee.

Aquellas diferencias son las que nos hacen personas únicas y especiales, que en conjunto y equitativamente alcanzaran el objetivo propuesto; Por eso en la Fundación Estrellitas del Mar, ayudamos a los chicos de colegio a pulir sus aptitudes y en algunos casos a descubrirlas, de tal manera que se conviertan en líderes,  capaces de ser guías y ejemplos para los más pequeños.

¿Nos ayudarías a formar líderes? Se parte de nuestra familia…

Con cariño,
 María & Joel

A Reflection on Senior Year…by Starfish senior Joel

Today, senior Starfish student Joel shares with us a reflection on his last year in high school, and his motivation for the future.  Joel has been with us since the first days of Starfish and we are so proud of all that he has accomplished so far!!

“Hi, I’m Joel.  I’m in my last year of high school.  To be in the last year of high school….it’s gratifying to know that you are about to graduate and meet one of your goals which is to finish high school.  Of course, the last year is not easy because your life is slowly taking an important turn towards responsibility.  One begins to become more independent, but it’s always necessary to listen to others’ advice for something that you don’t understand.  It may be related to your studies, which are important.  Someday, thanks to your academic efforts, you can achieve diplomas or scholarships like what I had, and with these accomplishments, people will respect you as a person.  If everything goes well, in the future they will also respect you as a professional.”

Also important to note, Joel has done an excellent job preparing for his graduation, participating in the equivalent of SAT-prep classes and earning an admirable score on the exam.  As such he is currently exploring 2 options, the public university to which he will automatically gain admittance with his outstanding test score, and a private university scholarship through another local organization which awards scholarships specifically based on merit.  Let’s wish him the best of luck as he continues in the scholarship process!!  ¡Buena suerte Joel!

Spanish language – Joel’s original post:

Hola, soy Joel.  Estoy en 3ro de bachillerato.  Estar en el último de colegio…es muy grato saber que estás a punto de graduarte y cumplir con una de tus metas que es finalizar el colegio.  Claro que el último año no es fácil porque tu vida poco a poco va tomando un giro importante que es el de la responsabilidad.  Uno se comienza a independizar, pero siempre hay que escuchar a los demás, sus consejos, en algo que no entiendes.  Puede ser referente a tus estudios, que son importante.  Algún día gracias a tu esfuerzo académico puedes obtener logros como diplomas o becas como los obtuve yo, y al obtener todos estos logros, las demás personas te van a respetar como persona.  Si todo va bien ya puede que más adelante de te respeten como un profesional.

Global Education: A Brief Look

Greetings, Starfish readers! We are launching a new blog series on global education. Also keep an eye out for posts from our volunteers and tutors, Starfish event highlights, and more every Thursday! We look forward to your comments.

Many people, myself included, were excited to hear President Obama speak about the possibility of free and universal community college in his State of the Union speech this week. This new initiative raises hope. Not only for those who would directly benefit from it, but for also everyone who recognizes education as a powerful, positive force.

Investing in education is, of course, an investment in the future. At Starfish, we know education has the power to change lives; it gives young people more opportunities and the ability to build up their communities. And it is encouraging to think that the President’s newly introduced policy may be part of a trend towards a greater global focus on education.

To nurture this trend, however, there is still much to be done. A recent report released by UNICEF and the UNESCO Institute for Statistics indicated that 58 million children and 63 million adolescents worldwide were out of school. In other words: 1 of 11 children are not in the classroom; 1 in 5 adolescents are not.

The global community intended 2015 to be a benchmark year for universal primary education and yet progress has been slow. Barriers to education include: poverty, child labor, gender discrimination, national and regional conflicts, geographic location, language challenges, malnutrition, natural disasters, teacher shortages, and disability.

A disproportionate number of girls, children with disabilities, and children living in rural areas leave school early or miss out on their educations entirely. UNESCO reports that the solution isn’t a matter of simply building more schools, but maintaining education in times of upheaval, combatting the above deterrents, and further determining why students aren’t in the classroom.

The situation isn’t hopeless, but rather complex. Still, change is possible. Last year, for example, in Ecuador, public school enrollment increased by 16%. The national literacy rate increased to 93%. The state spent a net $1.3 billion on education and made a plan to raise their secondary education graduation rate to 80% in the next several years. It will take hard work to put that plan into action, as it will take hard work to get students worldwide into their classrooms, but it’s worth it.

Thankful for Education: Part 4

This year for Thanksgiving we want to share with you one of the many things we are thankful for – our education.  This short series includes reflections from many various Starfish supporters on why they are thankful for your education.  We encourage you to read these reflections and also reflect on your own education.  Read our first reflection below and comment, What part of your education are you most thankful for?

I grew up in a household deeply committed to education. You might say it was a core family value. Growing up, it was never a question of whether or not I would go to college, but, rather, where I would go to college. The only question really was if I would choose to earn any degrees beyond a baccalaureate.

But, my parents never had to choose between buying our next family dinner or an expensive textbook. In fact, they had the luxury of choosing to send me and my sister to a tuition-based school rather than the local public school. Not that my parents didn’t make sacrifices for our education, they certainly did, but those sacrifices never involved choosing between feeding and clothing our bodies and feeding and nurturing our minds.

I remember thinking once when I was young—perhaps 9 or so—how lucky I was to be born where I was, when I was and to whom I was. I also remember grasping the sheer vastness of the world and the incredible odds I landed in such a good spot. I still believe that, though need to force myself to stop and contemplate it more.

My education has become an integral part of who I am and I how I interact with the world. It’s not just that I am thankful for my education; I am who I am because of it.  Too often economic privilege and educational access go hand in hand. This is true in the United States and, as we well know, it is especially true in Ecuador. I was drawn to volunteer with Starfish Foundation because of how much I value my own education and have come to know further privilege and success because it.

When I really push myself to think about why I am most thankful for my education it’s because it (hopefully) has allowed me to be a part of the solution. And not just because it taught me to think about things on a broader scale and recognize the complex and nuanced factors that attribute to almost every major problem/conflict/crisis in the world. Rather, it has given me the opportunity to support myself and my family through activities that engage my mind and allowed me to make more than a living wage while only working 8(ish) hours a day, five days a week. It gives me sick days. It gives me paid vacation. It gives me a way to plan financially for the future.

These things sound boring, but it all adds up to big impact. Why? Because it gives me the time, energy and financial resources to support worthy causes. It also, most likely, ensures that future generations of my family will have those same opportunities, and therefore, the same chance to give back to the world in meaningful ways.

The cycle of poverty is a very real, documented and studied phenomenon. As is inherited privilege, just picture the kids in the front row in the cartoon that Jenn describes in her blog post. I landed on the luck side of that equation. But, too many people born into this world do not.

What is the best known way to break the cycle of poverty? Education. So, I am thankful for my education so that I might—in some small and sometimes seemingly insignificant way—help others achieve an education as well, especially those up against the greatest of odds.

Written by Alex Maegdlin, Starfish Communications Manager

Thankful for Education: Part 3

This year for Thanksgiving we want to share with you one of the many things we are thankful for – our education.  This short series includes reflections from many various Starfish supporters on why they are thankful for your education.  We encourage you to read these reflections and also reflect on your own education.  Read our first reflection below and comment, What part of your education are you most thankful for?

True confession: I was part of the planning committee that decided it would be a good idea to have some friends of Starfish write blogs about why they are grateful for their education; it seemed like an easy way to tie together what we do and the current holiday and just seemed like low hanging fruit.  I have been staring at a blank computer screen intermittently for the better part of the morning, it turns out that explaining why I am thankful for my education is like trying to explain why I am grateful that there is oxygen in the environment. Ironically, I have spent this semester limping across the finish line of getting my masters, so this thankfulness exercise is much needed.

I did not understand how passionate my parents were about education until I was a junior in high school.  My brother was in his second year of college studying fine arts at a state university.  He had landed a job doing the framing on multi-million dollar houses and making “good money”, he informed my parents that he was going to quit school because he could make more money working (isn’t it always true that you can make more money working full-time than you can being a college student?). They informed him that he would take one class per semester until he graduated or died, whichever came first; He decided to take two classes a semester.  I never remember a conversation about my future with my parents, it was just always implied that I would go to college. In 10 days I will become the first person in my family to obtain a master’s degree. I want to also be clear that education does not necessarily mean just formal education.  It pleases me so much that as of late, many colleges and universities have understood the importance of sending their students abroad and also pushing their comfort zones. Some of the crown jewels of my education were delivered in Xhosa at a senior citizen’s center in the townships outside of Grahamstown, South Africa.

Abraham Maslow, a famous psychologist created a hierarchy of needs positing that you cannot fulfill any needs on the pyramid until the ones below it are satisfied—it’s pretty straightforward if you don’t have food, clothing, and shelter you cannot/do not worry about love and belonging.  I always count myself lucky that despite growing up poor, I did not have to worry about the basics and had the time and space to flourish in the classroom.  Only recently have I left education—after graduation with my B.A., I worked in education, then went back to school full-time.

I now have a corporate job working in a blue collar environment and I am grateful for my education because it helps me empower others.  It is fairly well known that I used to work in admissions and so I have spent a lot of time counseling employees on whether or not getting a degree is the right decision for them.  Beyond that I do a lot of volunteer work with a youth leadership organization; I just had the pleasure of spending 5 days in Asheville, NC with some of the most motivated and intelligent young adults you will ever meet.  They were there because they have the will to change the world and after attending the academy the resources as well.  I volunteer for my alma mater and each year teach part of the curriculum for the alumni mentor retreat. I do lots of consulting throughout the year. I am an amateur photographer and help others capture their lives and emotions for years to come.  All of these things are possible because of the education I’ve received and the body of knowledge I strive to enlarge every day.  I’m thankful for my education because it empowered me to rise above and allows me empower those around me to never stop learning and growing.

Written by Anna Jordan, Starfish Development Manager

Thankful for Education: Part 2

This year for Thanksgiving we want to share with you one of the many things we are thankful for – our education.  This short series includes reflections from many various Starfish supporters on why they are thankful for your education.  We encourage you to read these reflections and also reflect on your own education.  Read our first reflection below and comment, What part of your education are you most thankful for?

Why am I thankful for my education? 

Let me back up a minute – how about instead of why, am I thankful for my education? Well now that you asked, of course I am! But what if you didn’t ask me – would I realize how thankful I really am?  I grew up in a town where the percent of students who graduated college and continued on to college was ridiculously high.  No one asked if you were going to college.  They only asked, “where are you going to college?” with the implication that of course that’s what you would do upon graduation.  From honors & AP classes, to sports & other extra-curriculars, SWHS sure laid out a pretty nice path for me to finish high school and continue on to college.

At Fairfield, the Jesuits took education to a whole new level.  Cura Personalis – care for the whole person? Seeking Magis – the more?  You mean learning isn’t just at school during class?  I know I (read: my parents and my scholarship) paid a whole ton of money for the 5 classes I took each semester, but at least 75% of my education took place outside of the classroom.  Retreats, community service, immersion trips, ministry, student association, clubs, jobs, study abroad – you name it – if Fairfield offered it, I signed up!  Also I can’t forget the fact that I had the opportunity to design my own second major called Social Justice in Latin America – I decided what I loved and I got to design my own path to learn more about it – how great is that? I even traveled to the Philippines & Nicaragua (3 times!) and domestically to NYC to serve the homeless population, Atlanta to a teach-in to protest injustices & Washington, DC for a humanitarian action conference.

That’s not to say the classes weren’t great – where else would I get the opportunity to sit with professionals in their field and just chat with them?  Those of you who know me now never believe me – but I was quite a shy person growing up.  However, over the year the professors at Fairfield taught me to believe in myself, to challenge what I learned – and even to challenge them.  Open doors during office hours, small classes of 10-15 where one could really engage in a subject – that’s what education was like for me.  Years later I still stay in touch with many of them and they never hesitate to help when at all possible.

Let’s back up again and pretend I wasn’t born in Connecticut.  Let’s say I was born in Guayaquil:

I grew up on less than $2/day.  So when it was time to go to school, most days I didn’t eat breakfast first – I usually can’t eat a lot in the morning anyway, but this time it wasn’t my choice.  I’m hungry, but there isn’t any food – or there is only a little so mom has to give it to my younger siblings and we go without.  I arrive at school after my 25 minute walk, but my homework is incomplete because I didn’t have money to go to the internet cafe and complete the assigned research so I used some old books I borrowed from the neighbor.  I receive a 6 on the assignment.  At least I don’t fail.  In my next class I have a test.  Despite my best efforts to pay attention and take good notes, we couldn’t afford the book this year so it is hard to study. I hope I do okay anyway.  In my last class I have a really hard time understanding my teacher so I timidly raised my hand and ask a question.  He says we are out of time and that I should figure it out on my own because he already explained it once.

When I get home around 2pm I still haven’t eaten anything all day but since mom & dad are at work I have to cook.  I go to the store with a few dollars and bring back the ingredients for soup, rice and menestra.  The prep and cooking takes a little over an hour.  By 3:30pm I can eat a little lunch and save the rest for dinner when everyone else is home.  I start my homework but it’s so hard to concentrate.  I go outside for a bit and play soccer with my friends.  At my friend’s house a social worker from a foundation is visiting.  She’s talking to my friend and her mom about options for college.  No one’s ever talked to me about college, I can’t even think about college – I won’t even make it through my first year of high school! Plus college is expensive, there’s no way I can do that – I’d better get a job and help my family.  It’s dark now so I go back inside to finish the rest of my homework before going to bed and starting over tomorrow.

Now that’s pretty different from my reality.  I recently saw a cartoon online trying to explain privilege and opportunity.  Imagine a classroom where maybe I’m in the front row because I grew up in Connecticut.  In the middle rows are some disadvantaged schools in the U.S. and maybe some private schools in the developing world.  In the back row are our Starfish students.  Now there’s a garbage bin in the front of the room and we all have a crumpled up piece of paper that we’re trying to shoot into the bin.  Most of us from Connecticut are able to make the shot because we’re so close.  But my friends from Starfish – they are trying at least as hard but they haven’t been given that opportunity.  They were born in the back row and have to work many times harder to overcome those obstacles.  A few of them make the shot, but most of them miss.  Is that just? Not even a little bit.

So yes, I’m really thankful for my education and I’m thankful for this opportunity to share that with you all.  Without education, I could never have even imagined being where I am today.  I also believe that education is not only a privilege but also a responsibility.  It is a responsibility to act and to never turn a blind eye to injustice. So thanks to my education, and a big thanks to all of you for your support in continuing to make my dream come true so that Starfish can continue to allow others to value their education in Ecuador!

Written by Jenn Zocco, Starfish Co-Founder

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” ~ Martin Luther King, Jr.

Thankful for Education: Part 1

This year for Thanksgiving we want to share with you one of the many things we are thankful for – our education.  This short series includes reflections from many various Starfish supporters on why they are thankful for your education.  We encourage you to read these reflections and also reflect on your own education.  Read our first reflection below and comment, What part of your education are you most thankful for?

My education has opened up many doors for me and enriched my life in ways that I would never have planned on.  While my education is something that I often take for granted, looking back on it gives me perspective on lucky I am.  From a classroom content perspective, my education from elementary school to college at Villanova University has enabled me to more fully engage in the world and hold a job.  Without that, I would have much more difficulty calculating tips at restaurants, understanding how the government works, or even writing this post.

Outside of lectures and exams, my education has also given me the opportunity to meet lots of great people and develop friendships.  The majority of my friends are somehow tied to the schools I’ve gone to. I am very thankful to have met these friends.  These friends have given me the opportunity to have different perspectives on life and learn about relationships.  If it wasn’t for friends I met at Villanova, I would never have even known about the Starfish Foundation.

I’m also thankful for the opportunities that exist for me to continue learning even when I am not officially in school. I definitely hope to be a lifelong learner.  Being involved with the Starfish Foundation has helped me learn more about another culture.  I hope the Starfish students will also continue to take advantage of their learning opportunities both in the classroom, during tutoring times, and during daily interactions with each other.

Written by Danny Newell, former Starfish volunteer both in the U.S. & Ecuador

A Volunteer Perspective – Why I Stayed

Extending my Visa

Ecuador is a country filled with diversity, culture, and most importantly life. Why would anyone want to leave Ecuador? This question was always running through my thoughts during my first month of working with the Starfish Foundation.

It was so easy and comfortable adjusting to life in Ecuador, with the warm welcome from the Starfish families. With that in mind I decided that my journey in Ecuador didn’t have to end so soon, and so the next step was to extend my visa.

Extending my visa is the best decision I’ve ever made. I’ve had more time to make memories and bond with the students while chatting about future plans and goals.  And best of all, every day I am able to walk into a classroom filled with warm smiles, and share time with families who open their homes to us strangers.

Working for the Starfish Foundation has been a blessing and great experience.  I wouldn’t change it for the world. There is no other place like Ecuador and that’s why I decided to make it my home as long as I possibly could.

Written by current Starfish Volunteer in Ecuador, Nancy Landeros

*Note* Nancy is doing a gap year between high school and college and first heard about Starfish through the extended HOBY network, of which co-founder Beth is a part.  Originally Nancy had planned to say for the 90 days that a tourist visa allows, but quickly decided she would like to spend more time in this beautiful country.  So she embarked on the challenging journey of obtaining a visa extension and was rewarded after much hard work and patience with a 6-month extension that will allow her to be with Starfish until the end of March!