Spring Cleaning, Summer Reading

April was a busy month in Ecuador!


While students were on summer break, they embraced a new summer reading initiative! Throughout March and April, Starfish students read daily, completed a reading log, and attended weekly sessions to talk about what they’re reading with our educators! How fun is that?

During summer break, recent Starfish grad, Julio, joined our staff as a work-study volunteer! He’s a quick learner and has been a great addition to the team – we’re so lucky to have him!

April also included some fun for our staff! At the beginning of April they went on their annual staff field trip to nearby pool and outdoor complex to spend a Sunday of relaxation with their work friends. Later in the month, we began a new monthly tradition of staff incentives – or what many of us might have heard called “mandatory fun” at college. This month staff first enjoyed a breakfast prepared by ICD Jenn, and then participated in a lip sync contest, inspired by Jimmy Fallon’s lip sync contests on his late night show. Everyone had a blast and looks forward to future staff bonding opportunities.

The new school year started on April 24th. Two days prior, on April 22nd, we held a meeting and invited all the scholars to come and receive their backpacks, uniforms, shoes, and school supplies. Scholars then participated in the School for Leadership. This month’s theme was humanitarian action, as we took a look back on the devastating 7.8 magnitude earthquake that hit Ecuador in April 2016, and the world’s humanitarian response to that tragedy.

The next day (April 23rd), we held our first Bingo of the year!Games of BINGO are a popular way to raise money in Ecuador. This year we raised about $275 at the event.

The first week of school was spent getting to know each other. New and returning scholars worked together to set expectations and goals for the new year and to review material from the previous semester. The last few weeks have been a lot of fun – we’re keeping everyone busy with clubs, projects, and many small workshops. Tune in next week for more details!


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.


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!

Thank you, Emily C. Specchio Foundation!

Co-founders Jenn Zocco and Beth Awalt have been selected as the 2012 Emily C. Specchio Foundation Ambassadors.

We are so appreciative of this opportunity. Throughout the next year, the Emily C. Specchio Foundation will provide Starfish with mentorship, an initial monetary award and a matching grant – totaling up to $8,500 at most! Beth and Jenn are busy putting together speaker’s kits and promo videos for upcoming speaking engagements.

To learn more about the program, visit http://emilycspecchiofoundation.org/wordpress/ambassador-program. Let any Virginia Tech students know that there are opportunities for them as well! Emily had a great passion for social justice, especially abroad, and we are honored to be chosen to represent her foundation this year.

Make sure to check out the video from A Night with an Angel 2012, featuring many past and present scholarship winners, as well as The Emily C. Specchio Foundation webpage, to learn more about or donate to the organization.

Gracias a Mi Cometa!

During my visit to Ecuador, Jenn gave me a great little tour of Mi Cometa. Come join me on the tour!

Upon my arrival at Mi Cometa, Jenn ushered me into Gladys’ office. We talked at length with her and the woman in the red shirt, Eugenia, who told us that Mi Cometa used to work all over Guayaquil – in neighborhoods north and south! She was one of the founders of Mi Cometa, when it began 20 years ago in the neighborhood of Guasmo.

Later, I spent time with both Gladys (left) and Janet. Gladys is the president of Mi Cometa – we love that a female runs this great organization! Janet is in charge of Creciendo Nuestros Hijos (CNH), a program to provide early stimulation for children ages 0-5.

Look – we have a cabinet! Jenn is able to keep supplies in this cabinet, in a locked room at Mi Cometa. We are so appreciative of the space to keep track of our Scholars’ materials!

I peeked into the room where CNH operates, and I met one of our Scholars (Geovanny, middle) and one of our huge supporters from CNH! Many of the staff members at CNH recommended certain families for Jenn to visit – in total, she checked out almost 50 houses to elect the 28 Starfish Scholars!

THANKS … For keeping this space clean, “remember that cleanliness is part of good living.”

“We care for the environment.” Mi Cometa and Starfish share many values!

View from the roof of Mi Cometa. You can see for miles!

One location of many Guasmo Starfish meetings.

Another view from the roof of Mi Cometa. It was so peaceful up there – a great place to sit and think!
The bulletin board for Adopta Una Familia (AUF). The program works with families in the area to have “minga” – joint clean-up sessions – where everyone pitches in to build a house for one of the families. AUF works closely with a church in Connecticut to sponsor and support this effort.
Jenn and I with Marjorie, one of the AUF social workers and promoters. Marjorie has SO much energy – she made me feel right at home!

Thanks to Mi Cometa for a wonderful visit! I also learned a lot about the music school at night and their new efforts to care for street kids in 2013. I appreciate every one of you and all the work you are doing so much. God bless you all!

–Beth Awalt, Co-Founder
The Starfish Foundation, Inc.

Meet Emily Specchio…

Emily was truly an amazing and inspirational person. She always had a huge smile on her face and had a fantastic sense of humor. Her laugh was infectious and her passions in life were many.

Born on September 3, 1984 in Morristown, NJ, Emily lived the majority of her life in Chester, NJ where she attended Chester public schools and Mendham High School. After graduating from Mendham in 2002, Emily started her college career at Virginia Tech. She truly flourished at VT and became very involved in many charitable organizations. She pledged Phi Sigma Pi national honor fraternity (PSP) in 2004. Emily absolutely loved both Virginia Tech and her fraternity, and embodied their virtues of Scholarship, Leadership, and Service. Through PSP, Emily raised money and participated in Relay for Life, helped tutor children at Gilbert Linkous Elementary School, helped clean and beautify Virginia Tech’s duck pond, and helped raise money towards PSP’s national charity, Teach for America. Outside of the fraternity, Emily was also very active in the Foundation for Peace, travelling twice to the Dominican Republic to help improve the water quality and health in the areas surrounding Santo Domingo. In addition, Emily was an extremely talented pianist and artist.

Emily graduated magna cum laude from Virginia Tech University on May 13th, 2006. She was a Marketing major in the Pamplin College of Business and had already begun taking graduate courses her senior year at VT. She passed away suddenly and unexpectedly two days later of a ruptured cerebral aneurysm. She will forever be missed, yet touched so many people during her 21 years of life. The mission of the Emily Specchio foundation is to celebrate the life of Emily by following her inspirational lead in continuing to support charitable organizations close to her heart. An endowed scholarship at Virginia Tech has been created in her name to give annual scholarships to students with similar interests and passions.

This year, Beth and Jenn have been selected for the Emily C. Specchio Ambassador Program! We really appreciate the mission of the Emily C. Specchio Foundation (http://emilycspecchiofoundation.org/wordpress/mission-statement), and we are excited to work with Marco and the rest of the staff at Emily C. Specchio Foundation this year. Jenn and Beth’s experiences in Latin America, working for non-profit organizations and passion for The Starfish Foundation lend themselves naturally to the Ambassador Program. Stay tuned for more updates on Beth’s speaking engagements this fall, our fundraising goals, and our experience with the Emily C. Specchio Foundation! To find out more, click here: http://emilycspecchiofoundation.org/wordpress/ambassador-program.

Social Entrepreneurship at Villanova!

We’ve been so blessed to have such great support, particularly from Villanova University. As a Villanova alum, this past fall I was able to connect with Dr. Jim Klingler in the Villanova School of Business. Dr. Klingler has been an invaluable resource to Jenn and I, lending insight on multiple occasions from his experience with international non-profits. He reommended I read Forces for Good, by Leslie Crutchfield, to learn some of the most important findings from a study on impactful non-profit organizations. Crutchfield highlights themes such as forming partnerships, advocating for a cause, inspiring evangelists, adapting, sharing leadership and networking.

This past spring, Dr. K offered us the opportunity to propose a project to his Social Entrepreneurship class. Jenn and I first Skyped the class from Guayaquil in January, when I was visiting and Jenn had just arrived. We proposed for a group to design sustainable fund-raising ideas for  our organization. Two weeks later, I met with Martin, Erin, Jay, James, Ayyoub, and Ashia to discuss ideas.

The Starfish team at their final presentation!
Photo by Dr. Jim Klingler

The group spent a semester learning about impactful social entrepreneurship endeavors, culminating in a final presentation about ideas for sustainable funding for Starfish. I don’t want to spoil the surprises, but let me say that the four ideas presented were great! One in particular was quite original, and it provides a great avenue for Starfish Scholars to collaborate in our program. Another included some stellar planning for our benefit dinner this fall – appropriately named “Dinner Under the Brightest Stars.” The third project detailed ideas for some website revamping, and the fourth project assists in grant research. A HUGE thanks to the Starfish Team for all of their hard work this semester!!

Martin, Peter, Ayyoub, Ashia, Jay, Beth, James and Erin at the final presentation!
Photo by Dr. Jim Klingler

–Beth Awalt, Co-Founder of The Starfish Foundation, Inc.