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 Day...in 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

Book Recommendations from Starfish Staff, Scholars, and Volunteers

Did you know? March is not only Women’s History month, but also Literacy Month. In honor of this special occasion, I decided to take a swim around and find out what some of people’s favorite books are. Here are some of the book reviews I gathered:

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (Atrapado sin salida) by Ken Kesey
“I love this book because it tells the story of a misinterpreted group of people. bajo la misma estrella.inddAlso, it is written uniquely through a unprecedented perspective.” – Michelle

Bajo la Misma Estrella (The Fault in our Stars) by John Green
“It’s a romance book about 2 young people who have cancer. They fall in love and live many happy moments together in spite of knowing that they had. They were very happy together.” – Diego

Watership Down (La colina de Watership) by Richard Adams
“It’s a family tradition to read this novel about an incredible journey of fellowship, loss, struggle, and triumph. Every time I read it, I learn more about myself and the world around me, and it has helped me to become who I am today.” – Sara W.left to tell

Left to Tell (Sobrevivir para Contarlo) by Immaculee Illibagiza or Tattoos on the Heart (Tatuajes en el corazón) by Greg Boyle
“The first is a powerful story of forgiveness after the Rwandan genocide through the author’s Catholic faith, and the second is A personal account about his work with mostly-Latino gang youth in LA. I’ve had the blessing to hear them both speak, and it is UNREAL to learn about their real-life experiences and their powerful character! What beautiful people.” – Beth

“Lágrimas de Ángeles” (Tears of Angels) by Edna Iturralde
“I like this book because it helps me realize the kind of life many kids without homes live. They are exploited and forced to work by unscrupulous people. It tells the story of Jaime, who lives with his dad, but runs away and gets lost in a new city. He decides to walk and he finds a girl the same age as him. She lives on the street and works at the stoplights with a lot of other kids. Jaime stays to live with them in the street and that’s when he beings to experience how life is.” – Lili

Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling
“I love those books because they transported me to a world that I would love to be a part of, even only while reading. I think it also helps that there are 7 of them, so they were with me for the entire second half of my childhood.” – Veronica
“My favorite book when I was younger was the Prisoner of Azkaban – the third part of the Harry Potter series. It’s very exciting to read. It’s about another adventure of Harry, Hermione and Ron, this time a dangerous assassin escapes from Azkaban and is going after Harry.” – William

harry potter

El Prínicipe Feliz (The Happy Prince) by Oscar Wilde
“It’s about a place high up in a city where there was a statue of a prince, and everyone who looked at it was impressed by the beauty and happiness of the statue. For them the statue represented the existence of happy people in the world.”

The Kite Runner (Cometas en el cielo) by Khaled Hosseini
“This is one of those books that I just couldn’t put down; I read the whole thing in a day, and thought about the story for months afterwards. Following the story of two young boys from Kabul, it is a powerful story of mistakes, guilt, betrayal, relationships, forgiveness of others and yourself, and the struggle for redemption.” – Amanda

Beloved by Toni Morrison
“Although I hated Beloved upon my first reading, revisiting it for a college course completely changed my opinion of it. While I still struggle with some aspects of it, it made me question the way that I judge other people and their decisions, and gave me even more motivation to be an open-minded reader and individual overall.” – Sara W.IJ00335601_sobrecub_canterville.indd

El fantasma de Canterville (The Canterville Ghost) by Oscar Wilde
“I had a mix of many emotions when I was reading this short story about a rich family from the United States who buys a castle where a ghost was living. The ghost had scared away many families who had tried to live in the castle previously, but, this family didn’t pay attention to the actions of the ghost.” – William

You Are In My Heart; Always: Notes from a Volunteer

Today’s blog is written by Anna Evich,who volunteered with us in Ecuador over the summer in our July group and then returned to help us develop new curriculum and train staff from September to December.

annaBefore leaving for Ecuador to be a summer volunteer at The Starfish Foundation this past July, I was struggling. I was suffering greatly because of the demands of my job as a teacher, and the excess pressure I put on myself to do everything I could for my students. It was too much and I was starting to break down. One late night in February, I was scrolling through Instagram, trying to avoid the work I had to do for school, when I came upon a post that was advertising the opportunity to work as a summer volunteer in Guayaquil, Ecuador. As soon as I saw it, I knew. I put my phone down, went to the website on my computer, and started working on the application.
I had never been so sure of anything in my life.

I had traveled to Ecuador while I was in college, and I never forgot the feeling it gave me; how truly happy I felt when I was there. I continued to pray for the people that I met there each week at church, and the desire to return always lingered in the back of my mind. The country and the people and the love that they shared with me and with one another was the most beautiful thing I had ever experienced. I felt like my most authentic self there, and I wanted and needed to be back in that place.

anna6

When I arrived in July, everything fell into place. I could think more clearly, and was able to be present in each moment of everything that I did. I absorbed every sensation, every detail, and simply took it all in. I was tutoring students with their English homework, teaching English classes with another volunteer, and creating and presenting professional developments to the staff. Everything was perfect. Only I soon realized that a month in and out was not enough for me. That time made me realize how much more I could contribute to the growth and development of such an incredible organization. The gaps and dents that existed in the school system in Guayaquil were so apparent to me, and I knew I had the skills that were needed to adjust the curriculum. How could I just let that go?

So, I made the decision. I was going back for more. I vividly remember the night before I left. I was washing my hands in the bathroom, and I noticed some black dust of some sort on my chest. I leaned in closer to the mirror, about to wipe it off, and my mouth opened in disbelief. The black mark so clearly formed the word “love” on my chest. It was indisputable. I knew it was a sign. I don’t often look for signs, but when they appear so bluntly, I can’t help but think there is a reason. And there it was. I soon found that my heart was so full in Ecuador, and I know now that it always will be. It’s as if God knew that I was in great need of the love that would be given to me there.

anna8Upon my arrival, my host family immediately took me in as one of their own. I woke up the next morning in a home that felt warm, comfortable, and familiar, despite having just arrived. There’s just something about this culture that simply cannot be put into words. The kids and educators at the Foundation welcomed me back with open arms, and were genuinely happy to see me. I immediately felt the love. The more time I spent watching the educators with the kids, the more I could feel this crazy rush of ideas pouring out of me.

This time around, I was taking on a new role as Curriculum Development Coordinator, and amazingly, the director and educators were open to every idea (no matter how outlandish) that I proposed to them. I felt empowered, because for the first time ever in my career as an educator, I was granted the creative liberty to make the changes that I saw necessary for my students, without limitations.

I was able to contribute my talents, and actually see the results as they unfolded. I felt appreciated and valued every step of the way. My work was meaningful. I woke up every day excited to get to the Foundation, so that I could continue working on the projects I had started. Work didn’t feel like work. I was giddy to spend time with the educators and students. Somehow even with the barriers of language and culture, we had all kinds of inside jokes and jabs that we liked to throw out at each other for laughs. We could run around making sure all kinds of tasks were getting accomplished, while also keeping the environment light-hearted and enjoyable. I knew that I was truly happy, and I cherished every minute of it.

Finally, the dreaded departure date arrived. I didn’t want to leave. I knew that when I returned to the United States, almost everyone I talked to would say the same things: How incredible the work was that I did in Ecuador. How selfless of me to go and teach those students and teachers so many things, and to leave such an impact. But what most of those people don’t realize is how much I gained in return from my experience. They were not able to witness the beauty of the people that I got to know so intimately.

anna2

I think it is safe to say that there was a mutual exchange of knowledge and impact, just in very different ways. My way taught the people I encountered in Flor de Bastión how to better prepare themselves to reach the opportunities that exist in this world, and their way taught me how to achieve life beyond mortality, and seek God in ways I never knew how. So the question is, who really benefited more here? I am forever changed and forever grateful.

A las personas de La Fundación de Estrellitas del Mar: Ustedes estarán en mi corazón por siempre. (To the People of the Starfish Foundation: You are always in my heart.)

“I Choose to Learn” and Other Initiatives

In addition to the work done with our scholars, The Starfish Foundation also works with adults and other members of the community through “The Parents School” and “I Choose to Learn”. I spent some time this week learning about these various initiatives so I could share the information with you.

The Parents School happens once a month (the last Sunday of the month). During this time, Psychology professionals conduct workshops and therapies. Although children are not required to participate in parents school, about 15 to 20 scholars are involved per month.

At the first meeting of The Parents School staff took the time to get to know the concerns of and ask suggestions from them to use for future meetings.choose-to-learn

These monthly meetings also allow them to make connections and converse with other parents, as well as for Starfish staff to meet with and have a better understanding of their lives. The open communication helps everyone see from each other’s point of views, and encourages everyone to be open-minded.

In October, the topic of the month was “Equity in Household Activities.” Given by psychologist Edwin Alvarado, its objective was to understand the difficulties that the parents have when designating household chores.

During this session, parents and children worked in groups to make posters “indicating the discomforts of families and possible suggestions when designating the tasks at home”. Through this, participants realized the importance of their functions within the home, and parents gained an appreciation of the importance of having patience, as well as good balance between showing love and the authority.

What an important lesson! Next I got to hear about the “I Choose to Learn program” offered.

I Choose to Learn was originally a program aimed at mothers, but is now open to both mothers as well as youth in the community (both scholars and non-scholars). The goal is to help these individuals create items or complete tasks that generate income. Some projects include making wallets, purses, holsters, change purses, hairbands, and foam crafts.

The methodology for maintaining income is that for each item made, the participants will sell it and then half of the profit is for them and the other half is to buy the materials.

I wish them the best of the luck as they become aspiring entrepreneurs!

Until next time,
Henry

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.

starfish-birthday

Spotlight on Betsabeth’s Nursing Career!

Hi, I’m Betsabeth.  I was a scholarship recipient and now I’m one of the workers.  Thanks to God and my mom’s hard work along with my own, I was able to reach my goal of graduating and with the support from Starfish, I was able to realize my dream.

Now that I’m done with high school, I signed up for college and I am studying medicine so that I can be a licensed nurse.  I am learning a lot.  I learn all the different kinds of diseases and illnesses and they’ve taught me to take pulses, breathing, blood pressure and the pupillary reflex.  Now we are doing a internship with elderly people.  We are helping them to control their blood pressure on a daily basis, and at the same time I am doing an internship at a morgue where I am learning to do autopsies and analyze the body and all of its organisms, and the brain and how much skin we really have as human beings.

After all of the internships and practicals, at our final class we are given a test where we have to explain what we learned.  I really like my major because it’s helping me get over my fears and at the same time preparing me to be a great professional.

Here I’ll put a photo to show you what I am learning. Thank you!

Hola, Soy Betsabeth.  Fui becada en Estrellitas del Mar, ahora soy trabajadora.  Gracias a Dios y al esfuerzo de mi mamá y mío, logre llegar a mi meta que era graduarme y gracias al apoyo que me dio Starfish Foundation, pude cumplir mi sueño.

Ahora que salí del colegio, me inscribí en la universidad y estoy estudiando la carrera de medicina para llegar hacer licenciada de enfermería.  Estoy aprendiendo mucho.  Me enseña a conocer todas clases de enfermedades de las personas y me enseñaron a tomar el pulso, la respiración, la presión arterial y el reflejo pupilar y ahora mismo estamos haciendo practica con las personas adultos mayores.  Le estamos controlando su presión diariamente y a su vez estoy haciendo practica en un morgue donde estoy aprendiendo hacer la autopsia y analizar en el cadáver todos sus organismos y el cerebro y cuantas piel tenemos en realidad el ser humano.

Después de todas las practicas que tenemos en cada clases al finalizar de la clase nos toma un examen por lo cual nosotros tenemos explicar lo que aprendimos y me gusta mucho mi carrera porque me esta ayudando a superar mis miedos y a su vez a prepararme en mi carrera para ser una buena licenciada.

Aquí les pongo una fotito para enseñarles lo que estoy aprendiendo. ¡Gracias!

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