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.


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

Ecuadorian Women Who Made History

American historian Laurel Ulrich once said, “Well-behaved women rarely make history.” In celebration of Women’s History Month, here are a few of the millions of brave women that have broken all conventional rules to make a difference in the world.vera

Noralma Vera Arrata – Former Ecuadorian Prima Ballerina, choreographer, and Director of the National Dance Institute (Instituto Nacional de Danza)
Born in 1936, she began to dance in 1945 in Guayaquil. In 1957 she traveled to London to perfect her skill at The Royal Ballet. Throughout her career she dances in London, Paris, Ecuador, and Cuba – excelling in both Ballet and Modern.  In 1978, Vera founded her own ballet company and academy in her home city. After retiring from active dancing, Vera worked as a diplomat in Mexico and Cuba.
Fátima Ptacek – Actress and UN Activistfatima

As an actress, she is most well-known as the lead actor in the 2012 Academy Award winning film Curfew and its 2014 full-length feature film version Before I Disappear. She has also been the voice of “Dora” in Nickelodeon’s animated television series Dora the Explorer since 2010. As a UN activist, she has played an active role in the #HeForShe campaign for gender equality.  She is currently 16 years old, fluent in Spanish, English and Mandarin, and has expressed interest in transitioning from acting to a career in law someday.

Judith Gutiérrez Moscoso – Painter
Gutiérrez worked in multiple media including painting, sculpture, graphics, decoratives and applied installation. She also made puppets, costumes, and scenery for puppet shows. Her most famous pieces were the the Paraíso and Nocturno series. Gutierrez was known for ingenious composition of figures, incorporating symbols, and mystical scenes; nature, men, women, and the cosmos, are all the general components of her works. The critic Jorge Dávila Vásquez said that her work featured “the primitivism of those furtive encounters of man with the little demons of his childhood, nurtured by the religious Christian imaginary.”

judith - paraiso No. 2
Paraiso No. 2

aliciaAlicia Yáñez Cossío – Poet, Novelist, Journalist
Alicia is one of the leading figures in Ecuadorian literature and in Latin America, and she is the first Ecuadorian to win the Premio Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, which she received in 1996. Born in 1928 and raised in Quito she had “an extremely happy childhood, maybe a bit boyish, influenced by the first books I read: the works of Julio Verne and Tarzan’s feats.” Male chauvinism is a recurring theme in her writing. Irony, sarcasm and hyperbole make evident twisted masculine superiority and she often critiques social concepts such as virginity and homosexuality.  One of her more famous novels is “El Cristo Feo” (“The Ugly Christ”). In 1996 she received the Premio Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz for the best Latin American novel written by a woman.

While I could write on and on about these women and others, I instead encourage you to look into your own female role models and learn more about the contributions they have made to society – past or present. And, as always, be sure to remember the women who are close to you – teachers, principals, businesswomen – who have encouraged you to find your voice, helped you overcome obstacles, or challenged you to think differently.

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.


My Starfish Story – An Intern Perspective

Karley is a rising high school senior and has been interning with Starfish for almost a year now.  At our dinner in Baltimore this past April, Karley shared her “Starfish Story” with us – and what an inspiring story it is! Hear her story in Karley’s own words and get a glimpse into Starfish’s U.S. operations below…
“Hi, I am Karley White and I will start off by telling you a little bit about myself. I am a high school junior involved in lots of activities in an out of the school environment including student government, frisbee, coaching soccer and of course The Starfish Foundation.  
My Starfish story began with being fortunate enough to meet Beth through Hugh O’Brian Maryland Youth Leadership seminar last May, and then again in Chicago at the Hugh O’Brian World Leadership Congress. Both of these seminars were a very bright light in my world, changing a lot of my perspectives as a young adult. When I came home last July all I wanted to do was go out and  change the world; I felt like I needed to give back – do something, make change. Then as I was procrastinating summer assignments on Facebook, I came upon Beth’s post in the HOBY Facebook page that the foundation was looking for interns. Immediately I emailed her asking how I could get involved. Her reply asked for a resume and cover letter, both of which I did not have and was googling how to make one look nice. Soon we talked over the phone for an interview. I was so nervous. I told all my family they couldn’t come upstairs or make noise and I was just hoping to perfect it. Well, I guess I introduced myself nicely because not even 10 minutes later Beth so joyfully welcomed me to the team and reviewed my job as a marketing intern. I was absolutely thrilled, I was so happy to be apart of something great and knowing I would be devoting my time to help change the lives of students just like me earning an education. 
The past 8 or so months working with the foundation has been nothing short of inspiring and beautiful. Not only have I learned the true meaning of teamwork and synergy but I have also had so much opportunity to use my own creativity without a rubric guideline to follow. I work on a lot of short term projects, for example making a powerpoint, infographics, creating the Cafepress merchandise website, posting on the social media pages, etc. But it is not just me that works on it, it’s the flow of the collaboration that finalizes it all. We send it back and forth with edits or recommendations and always have deadlines to get it done. Also, the encouragement from everyone is certainly uplifting; there is never an email that goes by that is not concluded with thank yous and gratitude. To me there is no intimidating boss to intern type relationship, it is friend to friend working together for the common goal of making an impact. 
In conclusion, I feel as if I have gained more than I have given to the Starfish community and I have everyone on the team to thank for that. This experience continuously has been the uppermost value to me, it has been remarkable since the beginning. I consider myself lucky to say I am a part of this foundation and to have met and worked with the amazing people along the way. Thank you!”

Volunteer Reflection: Taken Aback

Jackie traveled to Ecuador this year for a few weeks, and immediately immersed herself in the culture.  Her positive attitude and energy allowed her a special opportunity to get to know many of our students and families.  Today she reflects on a few of these special people in her life!

“Taken aback, I believe, is the most accurate way to describe how I’ve been feeling and how I’ve been processing all the different and beautiful people I have met here.

There are some people we encounter– and we all know who they are, in our own lives– that shine and live so ferociously that, even when we close our eyes, we see the bright outlines cast by their luminescent presence. These people, simply by their existence, encourage us to be better, kinder, gentler, and to live in a bold, brave, and intentional way. These kinds of people leave indelible marks on our spirits and minds. They are colorful and magnificent, radiating with determination, love, and hope. Even in seemingly hopeless and impossible situations, these people rise above the material world and overcome countless obstacles through inner strength- strength of the soul.

I have met such people here, people my own age whom I look up to as role models and hold as friends. Thinking of them and their goals and dedication inspires me to live in a radical and beautiful manera.

Melanie. Now in her final year of high school, she spends three hours total commuting to and from school each day, and on Mondays and Thursdays, she skips lunch so she can attend refuerzo and receive extra help with English and her other studies. She is a devoted student, a talented dancer, a caring daughter, a loving sister, and a loyal friend. She dreams of becoming a flight attendant: of learning languages, attending university, of traveling and seeing the world. And she will.

Joel. Currently a first year student at a top private university in Guayaquil. His high test scores, hard work, and determination led him to win a prestigious scholarship that covers 100% of his tuition. He, like Melanie, has a long commute to and from classes, and afterwards comes home to study and volunteer at Starfish, thus giving back to a foundation that gave him opportunities to grow, succeed, and continue the process of lifelong learning. He studies hard: he studies to maintain his scholarship, to learn about economics and business, and to secure a stable occupation for himself. He wholeheartedly dedicates himself to growing in knowledge to achieve his dreams. And he will.

Maria. Like Joel, she is also a first year university student. And, like Melanie and Joel, she travels several hours each day to attend classes. She studies medicine: biology, chemistry, anatomy. She has a beautiful smile, loves to dance and sing, and she, also, gives back to Starfish and works there as an educadora, providing help that she once received. She is an inspiration to the students at refuerzo, and an inspiration to me. She studies for countless hours, loves her family and friends, and dreams of becoming a pediatrician. And she will.

Melanie, Joel, Maria. They exemplify hard work, passion, creativity, love, and dedication. They constantly overcome obstacles, they leap over the many hurdles that stand in their paths, and they rise above unjust situations. I feel honored and grateful to know them, and I am proud and joyful to call them my friends.

~ We must allow the world to pierce our hearts. For if we are not passionate, sensitive, and courageous, we are nothing ~  “

~Jackie A., Starfish Volunteer.  Read more reflections from Jackie on her blog!

November Updates from Ecuador!

In Flor our biggest accomplishment over the past few months has definitely been family involvement.  Involved families has had a direct result on the increased attendance, punctuality and grades of our students.  While there is always much more work to be done, I am really proud of our employees who have made great efforts to improve relations with our students’ families.  As grades come in from first semester I am proud to say grades are improving across the board in Flor!  Parents have become involved in more ways – providing daily snack, and lunch twice a week for our international volunteers who travel 2 hours on bus twice a week from our Guasmo neighborhood where they live.  Parent meeting attendance is well over 90% as well – a great example for our Scholars!

During the November meeting our Flor educadores prepared a meeting for the parents about getting to know their children in a new way.  First we did a fun dinámica where the parents were blindfolded and had to find their child(ren) by touching their faces to see if they could recognize them. Then the child & parent teams had to present facts about each other – what they like to do, what they’ve learned from each other to the whole group.  Lastly, parents were asked to fill out a survey about how much they know about their child’s school, grades, likes/dislikes, etc. in preparation for our next set of visits to the schools.


After the parents left, the kids got to finish up with a fun activitity with our volunteers, 2 of whom just finished their voluntariado.


In Guasmo, thanks to a continued partnership with Mi Cometa and the scholarship program that runs there – CASF, we have been blessed with the help of 3 educational psychology students in their last year of their studies.  As the prepare to graduate, they are completing their internships with Starfish & Mi Cometa families.  Twice per week they attend to special cases with our students and their parents, in hopes of establishing more communication, a better home life, and as a result the ability to succeed in their studies.  Once a week a licensed psychologist also comes to treat some of the more delicate cases, as delegated by the intern psychologists during the week.  This trial period will continue throughout December and we hope to continue this program next year as well as expand its service to our Flor de Bsatión neighborhood!

All in all, November was an exciting month at Starfish – and December is sure to have even more excitement with the holidays just around the corner!

An Evening for the Stars…CT style!

Beth & Jenn with former Starfish volunteer and photographer for the night, Maria!
A few weeks ago, we held another successful, “Evening for the Stars,” this time in Windsor Locks, CT.  For the third time now, friends of Starfish gathered together for a night of good food, great company and a chance to learn a little bit more about our programs.  
Delicious buffet dinner
The night started off with some social time to browse the silent auction items and participate in a 50-50 raffle.  This year’s auction not only featured several items from Ecuador, but also many local products.  In total there were over 35 items up for auction!
Auction Items from Ecuador!
Once all of our guests had arrived, we sat down for a delicious meal of rice, beans, enchiladas, chicken & more.  We shared with our guests about the need for Starfish and shared some of videos of our students. 
Guests Nadia, Joe, Matt, Rachel, Liz, Alyssa, Jenn & Jeff
As dinner was winding down, we had one last call for the silent auction before our keynote speaker, Don Awalt, gave a heartwarming and thought-provoking reflection on his recent trip to visit Starfish in Guayaquil.
Don during his reflection

All in all, it was a great night to share with friends, and a very successful fundraiser.  Between ticket sales, auction, raffle and general donations including those received from friends who could not attend, we raised 10% of our total budget for the entire year in just one night!

Guests Gabi, Julie, Shane, Nicole & Marcus

See our newsletter for official numbers, and if you don’t already receive it, don’t forget to sign up!

This night would not have been possible without the dedicated help and organization of many volunteers like those pictured below.  Thank you, gracias, from the bottom of our hearts!



Reflection on Values – What is Excellence?

Today I want to draw attention to our values, one of the results of the retreat we had with our advisory board back in March of this year.  We were able to re-define and focus our mission statement and our core values that guide us in our work both in the U.S. and with our scholars in Ecuador.

Joselyn, younger sister of a Starfish Scholar, is a big part of our Starfish community,
always willing to lend a helping hand.

Our core values are: Community, Life-long Learning, Determination and Excellence.  Excellence is the one, that for me really encompasses the heart of our mission.  Creating a community of scholars, our Starfish family, makes us unique because we create an environment where success is possible together.  We encourage our scholars to seek knowledge in all aspects of their life through life-long learning, and I’m pretty sure I never knew what real determination was before meeting some of our Scholars who have had to persevere in the face of challenges I never even imagined.  However, I keep coming back to Excellence.

Gema & Jasmin helping Julio with a school project.

What is “Excellence” to you?  To me, it is a mindset.  It is the mindset that is going to change our Scholar’s lives, no matter what their social or economic circumstances, and no matter what craziness occurs in the world around them.  To me, excellence doesn’t have so much to do with being “the best” at something, but rather not conforming with the status quo.  If you are frustrated that the government says they are going to pave your road but they never get around to it, or the workers are slow or irresponsible and turn a 6 month project into a 2 year project – does that make it okay for you to do the same with your studies? your job? your own neighborhood projects?  Because the rest of your friends choose not to go to school on the first day because “we don’t do anything on the first day,” does that mean you can extend your vacation one more day as well?  No – as an excellent Starfish Scholar (or Starfish supporter/friend/donor/volunteer,etc.) you know that you may not see the fruits of your labor right away, and others may wonder why you bother to put in that extra effort, but you know you are being the most excellent “you” that you can be!

Abraham, studying hard at “Refuerzo”

Excellent people lead others – sometimes at the head of a classroom, sometimes from a government position, and sometimes quietly by example in your family, school or community.  All of these leaders are equally important.  This year we challenge our Scholars to not settle for the status quo.  With this knowledge that we all know they can be excellent, there are no longer excuses.  That B+ is good, but could it be an A-?  We believe it can.  We challenge our Scholars to challenge themselves and each other. Striving for excellence will change their lives and it can change yours too.  Strive to be excellent in everything that YOU do, and expect big things from our Scholars this year!

“Be the change you wish to see in the world”(most often attributed to Mahatma Gandhi)
Betsabeth with her parents at her graduation this past March

Mil gracias – Many Thanks to our friends at COMIL!

For the second year in a row we have been blessed with donations and support from the wonderfully compassionate and generous STUDENTS at the Militar High School “Combatientes de Tapi N.6” in Riobamba, Ecuador.  That’s right, other high school students have taken it upon themselves to donate new and gently used books, notebooks, and other items to their new friends at Starfish here in Guayaquil as part of their Values class.  This year in particular, they helped us double the size of our Starfish library, which was created last year with their generous donations!  This was all made possible through a great initiative we call “Kids Supporting Kids”, started by our friend Monica.  Check out her blog to hear more about some of her other initiatives!

Some of the “ayudantes” helping to sort through and categorize books for our growing library!

We’re really excited to receive donations from another part of Ecuador.  While we are forever grateful for all of the support we have received from the U.S. and around the world, receiving donations from another city here in Ecuador has been an eye-opening experience for our Scholars.  They are able to learn first-hand the important lesson of how inter-connected we all are – and the great responsibility we all have to each other as global citizens.

Some of the students and teachers from COMIL plan to visit us at Starfish during the school year and we hope to keep in touch through a pen pal program so that we can continue to exchange ideas, inspiration and friendship with these inspiring youth!