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.


My Heart is Full: Notes from a Volunteer Abroad

Last week, Anna Evich shared a summary of her time volunteering in Ecuador, the work she did, and how her time there changed her as a person. This week, we’re checking back in with Anna to have her share some of her most memorable moments, favorite words, and and things she learned.


Most over-used phrase?
No entiendo (I don’t understand)

Favorite word?
Enserio?! (Seriously?!)

Favorite song?
Andas en mi cabeza (I’m still trying to learn the rap part in español)

Most embarrassing moment?
Saying that I was turned on “Estoy caliente,” instead of that I was physically warm, “Tengo calor.” BE CAREFUL!

Pop culture references?
When my host sister and her cousin sang “Let it Go” in Spanish (“Libre Soy”), as I sang it in English at the same time. Also, hearing everyone refer to Spongebob Squarepants as “Bob-espongha.”

anna7Funniest memory?
When one the the educators was acting out Jackie Chan for English class charades, and was running around the Foundation doing karate kicks and chopping tables, and broke a leg off of one of the tables (#commitmenttocharacter)

Fondest memory?
Being nicknamed “Anita” by my host family, having them call me “Anita Barrezueta” (their last name), and telling me that I was a part of their family.

What is one thing you might be remembered for?
Sleeping. A lot. Running joke: “Dónde está Anita?” (Where is Anna?) “Durmiendo.” (Sleeping) … I think the heat and lesson planning got to me!

Something you’ll never forget?
I lost my iPhone and had the whole Starfish staff searched around the Foundation for 20 minutes or more, trying to track and locate it on “Find my iPhone,” only to realize that it was in my room at my host family’s house.

Favorite lesson?anna4
A tie between “Cómo hablar en público” (How to Public Speak) and “Sinónimos y Antónimos” (Synonyms and Antonyms). Cecilia’s performance of what not to do when public-speaking was truly Oscar-worthy, and Maria and Jessica’s creative balloon-popping activity was the coolest lesson I have ever seen!

Greatest challenge?
Communicating! I only studied Spanish as my language core in college, and didn’t have much to go off of. Giving professional developments in Spanish
and collaborating with staff to plan and prepare lessons for the kids were definitely some of my greatest challenges! However, I learned so much in the process, and am so grateful to have been pushed in that way.

A moment you’ll never forget?
Something really special happened here that defines this beautiful culture in the most genuine way. One of the Starfish students, Bryan, noticed that my
friend (and fellow volunteer) Kaitlyn and I were leaving the Foundation after dark. He started yelling in Spanish across la cancha (the outdoor open space of the property) to one of the older male educators to come over to walk us home. The educator was busy talking to someone and didn’t come over after Bryan called out to him twice.
So, Bryan took it upon himself (at the young age of 13), to walk the two of us home. He told us it was dangerous for us to walk home by ourselves at night. On the way up the massive hill that led to our house, we asked Bryan how often he walked up that hill, as we were huffing and puffing and complaining about the difficulty of it, and he said “This is my first time.”
I immediately got chills. What a beautiful moment. What a beautiful soul. Without hesitation, a young child took on the role of the protective male figure, watching over us and ensuring our safety, without thinking twice about it.

What did you learn from your volunteer experience?anna5

  • Say what’s on your mind
  • Love deeply and vulnerably
  • Ask and you shall receive
  • Stand up for what is right
  • Be the voice when others can’t
  • Tell the people you love that you love them
  • Say thank you
  • Enjoy the little moments
  • Look around you
  • Give thanks to God
  • See the beauty in others
  • Appreciate the simplicity of life itself
  • Be your most genuine self
  • Be patient with yourself
  • Try, try again
  • Suffer with grace
  • Apologize when you’ve done wrong
  • Allow others to help you
  • Be present. Just be.

The Season of Love and Joy (Part 1)

In December, without a doubt, the holidays are filled with happiness, love, and excitement. In Ecuador, most families will get together on December 24th (Christmas Eve) and make a traditional dinner of hot chocolate and the traditional “Pan de Pascua”bread.  Families will eat together and enjoy each other’s company until midnight, which is when everyone opens their presents!

In Ecuador, and around the world, the holiday season is a time filled with peace and blessings, but it is also often a time of travel because it is custom to have the entire family together to celebrate Christmas joyfully.

This week, I spoke with one of our staff members, Pamela about her family’s traditions:

In general, my family has a tradition of spending the holidays together because the holidays are usually celebrated mostly by adults. We get to share experiences, and we laugh together. My siblings, cousins and friends come at a specific time so we can drink the hot chocolate and eat Pan de Pascua, which is delicious and the younger kids play with sparklers.

Then, there’s the time when you leave everything you’re doing and gather at the table for dinner. Dinner consists mostly of traditional plates, at least in my house. We make chicken with a Coca Cola sauce, a lettuce salad and a hot chocolate. After eating together, with joy and happiness we exchange presents.

However, some traditions apply to everyone:

In every neighborhood you can see the Christmas lights and decorations and people singing Christmas carols with joy and faith. 

For Pamela, it’s also tradition to remember the reason for the holiday:

We have music and many more activities throughout the night; we celebrate Jesus in our homes.

I hope Pamela and her loved ones have a great December and a blessed Christmas. Next week, I’ll be back to share more holiday practices and traditions from our Starfish Family.

Until then,

Redefining Happiness Part 2: A Thank You

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


This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Most importantly, I thank you for being happy.

A reflection on love, prayer, gratitude, and education: Cierra Tus Ojos

1375096_316676131808694_1906093806_nA big thank you to Xiomara Muñoz, our guest blogger this week. Xiomara is currently a sophomore at Boston College studying Biology and Faith, Peace, and Justice, and here she shares her thoughts about education in its many forms: academic and spiritual.

I remember the days well, as if they passed only yesterday.

Countless mornings throughout the school year, my mom drove my sisters and I to and from school. We lived about half an hour from our beloved elementary and high school, Koinonia Academy. For each of those thirty minutes during our drive, my mom was our teacher. One of the first things she taught us, aside from the importance of seat-belt safety, was prayer. The instant we buckled in and the car put into drive, we started reciting our prayers. Imbedded in our memories after hearing them hundreds of times, inadvertently we would say the prayers usually half meaningfully. Our minds drifted as we looked out the window towards the stores we passed along the way. Passing the Chuck E Cheese always made me think of their delicious pizza, interactive games, and the last time I had been there, all while reciting the “Angel of God” prayer. My thoughts and daydreams to return to the glory that is Chuck E Cheese shattered when my mom noticed my inattentiveness through the rear view mirror. “Xiomara, cierra tus ojos.” (“Xiomara, close your eyes.”)

“But mom,” I pleaded, “I can pray with my eyes open, it keeps me aware of my surroundings”. My mom didn’t buy that. Reluctantly, I closed my eyes and for the next 27 minutes with an occasional peep to see how much longer until we arrived at school. My 2nd grade self couldn’t wait till we got there. We would sing worship songs, pray a few decades of the rosary, and my mom, my two sisters and myself would then say our own personal prayer aloud. When the last line of prayer was said “Divino Nino Jesus, bendicenos”. I knew to open my eyes, and by this point, we were usually a block away from school, and it was almost always 8:28, with school starting at 8:30. We thanked our mom for driving us, grabbed our backpacks from the back seat, and would run out of the car, grateful to see, with our eyes squinting adjusting to the harsh bright sun. We knew most of the drive home later that afternoon would be spent in prayer as well. But we were used to this routine, and our main focus upon leaving the car was to get to class before the bell rang.

I remember these moments with much joy. I laugh as I think of the way my sister and I would open one eye during prayer time just to make sure that the other had her eyes closed. If we found ourselves both peeping, we would immediately tell our Mom, who would say that we needed to keep our eyes closed. A Colombian, with a devotion to the Divine Child Jesus, my mom wanted to teach us our prayers, and the importance of developing a personal and lived out relationship with God. My mom taught these life lessons not only through the different recitations of prayers, but in her actions.

For the next couple of years, until my eldest sister began teaching at our school, and assumed the role of driver, my mom would drive us every morning and pick us up every afternoon. Totaling two hours in the car (with almost an hour spent in prayer with us), my mom wanted to instill her love for God in us, and despite the trouble it was to keep our eyes closed, I am so grateful for my mom’s love in driving and praying with us. We ran from the car each morning truly educated and immersed in our mother’s language of love. I don’t even think we realized it. We had a full day of learning ahead of us, but those morning love lessons are what I hold most dear.

Through driving us without ever once complaining, my mom showed us what love in action is. Likewise, my dad worked most of the day to pay for our education at KA. Their love, in action, is so beautiful to witness and to experience. Their commitment to our education was and continues to be so prevalent through my life, and my sisters’ as well.

There were sacrifices involved in my sister’s and my education, but in my parent’s love for us, they saw the worth in it. I would not be where I am today without their love and their instilling in us the value of learning, education, and prayer. I am beyond grateful for these life lessons that have stuck with me for all these years. To this day, even a mental prayer is necessary the moment after buckling in the car. To take time and give thanks for God’s gifts in my life, I think of my mom saying, “Xiomara, cierra tus ojos”.