Now imagine having to pay for school when your family of eight makes $280 per month, a total yearly income of $3,360.
This is the reality facing many of the young students in Guayaquil, Ecuador, and as a result, they are forced to discontinue their education in high school or earlier, significantly decreasing their chances for future financial stability. One recent Fairfield grad, Jennifer Zocco ‘10, has dedicated herself to breaking this cycle of poverty by co-founding a nonprofit called The Starfish Foundation, Inc.
The Starfish Foundation is a new organization, just receiving its official nonprofit status from the IRS this past June. According to the mission statement, the goal of the nonprofit is “to keep at-risk Latin American youth on the path to an educated, independent lifestyle…We strive to keep young people off the street and empower them to overcome difficult life circumstances without falling into the seemingly inevitable cycle of poverty.”
The Starfish Foundation accomplishes this goal by providing financial, intellectual and emotional support to a select group of scholars who demonstrate both financial need and a strong desire to better themselves and their community with their continued education.
“Our students are primarily selected on the basis of economic need and other problems within the family but must demonstrate a motivation to study in spite of difficult circumstances,” said Zocco. “We look for students who show leadership skills or the potential to be leaders so that the foundation does not just give to them, but they give back to their communities through various service efforts.”
This year, 28 students were selected from a pool of about 40 applicants. The recipients of the scholarship received $216 to cover the cost of school supplies and uniforms.
While this money may not seem significant compared to the cost of universities in the United States, $216 makes a huge difference in the lives of the poorer families of Ecuador who otherwise would be unable to pay for their children’s education.
In order to illustrate this point, Zocco described the life of one current Starfish scholar named Maria. Zocco said that 13-year-old Maria was “the best student in her graduating class, but her grades dropped upon entering high school due to the added responsibilities at home.” These responsibilities involved helping to raise her four younger brothers and sisters while her mother and prematurely born baby sister were hospitalized.
Maria’s scholastic career was on the verge of ending. “Even when her dad has the good luck of having a job, minimum wage in Ecuador only pays about $280 per month,” said Zocco, “which is hardly enough to cover food for a family of eight, let alone bus fare for school or any school supplies.”
Maria’s fortunes changed when she applied to The Starfish Foundation’s program and became one of the recipients of the 2012-2013 scholarship. Now able to purchase the necessary books, uniforms and other supplies, Maria has “lots of hope to continue her studies and achieve the success she knows she is capable of,” said Zocco.
However, this newfound hope is not simply the result of financial aid. The many Starfish mentors and tutors—as well as the other scholarship recipients—have built a community upon peer-tutoring, mentor aid, emotional support and, most importantly, service for others.
“What makes Starfish unique amongst scholarship and other sponsor-a-student programs is the social commitment that our scholars make,” said Zocco. “Our students will never have to financially pay for their required books, uniforms and other school supplies, but they pay back to their community through volunteer work.”
Some of this volunteer work includes helping to tutor fellow scholars based on scholastic strengths. Additionally, The Starfish Foundation holds monthly meetings where students share their talents in areas such as dance, music and crafts.
If this “service for others” seems familiar, it might be because of its closeness to the Jesuit value of being “Men and Women for others.”
While attending Fairfield University, Zocco became very familiar with this Jesuit value and incorporated it into her daily life. She became highly involved in Campus Ministry, taking part in emersion trips, community service and retreats, among other things. These activities “gave me the courage and experience I needed to be able to volunteer and eventually co-found Starfish,” said Zocco. “Hands down I would not be doing what I am doing today if I had not gone to Fairfield.”
After graduating from Fairfield University with a degree in International Studies, an individualized designed degree in Social Justice in Latin America and two minors in Spanish and French, Zocco took part in a year of post-graduate work in Guayaquil.
One of Zocco’s fellow volunteers was Elizabeth Awalt, a graduate of Villanova University. The two became close friends, and their volunteer work and mutual love for Ecuador inspired them to return to the country and found their nonprofit organization.
“Sandy Queen, a motivational speaker, once asked me, ‘What step would you take today if you were brave?'” said Awalt. “Sandy’s question comes from a song by Jana Stanfield, and it reminds me that everyone does things that scare them sometimes. We had no idea how this would go, or what would come of it, but we have been so blessed with the support and guidance of many.”
Both Zocco and Awalt have said that their work, while difficult, is extremely rewarding. “I am inspired by the students, for sure,” said Awalt. She said that meeting the parents and families of Starfish scholars is also a particularly moving experience. Their gratitude and kindness always reaffirms Awalt’s decision to work in Ecuador.
Zocco agrees with Awalt, citing as an example a mother named Paola. “[She] constantly invites me into her ‘humble’ home and thanks me,” said Zocco. “She almost always begins to cry when she says, ‘I pray that God repays you because I will never be able to.’”
The Starfish Foundation has already changed the lives of dozens of students in Ecuador who might not have otherwise been able to finish their education. It may be impossible to ensure that all children in Ecuador will have an education, but the duo will continue working tirelessly toward this goal.
As The Starfish Foundation’s website states, “Most of all, we believe in the power of making a difference for many, one by one.”