An Interview with Jenn Zocco- Co-founder of The Starfish Foundation
2 years ago, The Starfish Foundation was started and since they have helped many children in Ecuador continue their education and achieve their goals. Their mission is to keep at-risk Latin American youth on the path to an educated, independent lifestyle. What makes the Starfish Foundation unique is they not only provides scholarship money but they also provide leadership development and academic support.
The idea behind creating the Starish Foundation formed after Jenn Zocco and Beth Awalt volunteered for a year in Ecuador at a children’s shelter. They realized the need to help children finish their school and that for many families, buying necessary school supplies can be struggle. Jenn travelled to Ecuador in January of 2012 and by April, the Starfish foundation started to purchase school uniforms and supplies. That first summer was busy and many of the Starfish Foundation’s programs were developed.
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Below is an interview with Jenn Zocco, who is a co-founder of the Foundation currently, living in Ecuador:
What has been your favorite part of working at Starfish? And/or a favorite memory?
It may sound cliché, but the smiles and stories of the Scholars are my favorite parts of Starfish. When I go to Starfish, the kids brighten my day. Though the heart of our mission is education, we also seek to inspire students to overcome difficult situations and reach their dreams. We care about each other. With the students and employees we have really formed one big Starfish family. If someone’s having a bad day, we cheer her up, we look out for her. And when someone’s having a good day, we celebrate together. It’s really something special that has happened here in Guayaquil over the past two years.
2. What challenges were you faced with when creating the organization? Are there any current challenges?
Beth and I co-founded Starfish just a few months after returning from a year of volunteer work in Ecuador. Ours hearts were 100% sure of what we wanted to do, but we wanted to make sure our organization would be sustainable for the long-term. So our first big challenge was gathering this advice from other international organizations and local Ecuadorian organizations, and trying to decide how to compile this information into something useful and practical for Starfish.
Being in Ecuador is a daily challenge. Trying to work efficiently and effectively in a culture that does not run on the same sense of time as I am used to is hard. I find myself constantly asking my employees and students questions that begin like this, “Well, if I were in the U.S. I would do this, but how would you do this here?” I always say, I could live here the rest of my life, but I will still never be Ecuadorian.
3. What are some of the specific projects that have taken place through the Leadership Development program?
Our Leadership Development program began as a way to show our Scholars that even though they might not have a lot of access to material resources, they too can help in their community. Volunteer tasks along with leadership workshops during our monthly meetings are how this program started. During the leadership workshops we do lots of icebreakers, teamwork activities, and try to figure out the “how” and “why” of working together to achieve a certain goal. This year, we took another leap in programming and were able to bring our Scholars to visit a local organization that acts as a hospital and home to patients of Hansen’s Disease. There, our students learned that you don’t have to have money to give; you can also give your time, laughter and companionship. We can all be leaders and we all have something to give.
4. How do you envision Starfish in the future?
In terms of sustainability, we hope that one day The Starfish Foundation, Inc. will be an organization for Ecuadorians, by Ecuadorians. Though the funding source may continue to be from generous donors mostly in the U.S., our Ecuadorians employees understand better the needs and hopes of their communities. This will ensure the long-term success of our program. As our Scholars begin to graduate, we hope they will continue as volunteers or employees to share their wisdom and experience with future scholars.
My biggest long-term goal or dream for Starfish is that our students become leaders in their community and advocate for change in the education system on a national level. I dream that they recognize the right to an excellent education and that they make that dream a reality for future generations.
5. Is there anything you want to add about your founding?
During our time as volunteers in Ecuador, a mentor shared with us the impacts of poverty on the education of Ecuadorian youth. She noted how privileged we were to graduate from college: a privilege that is also a responsibility to act. Over the past year, seeing the realities our scholars face made me more passionate about the work we do. For many, being a Starfish Scholar means that for the first time they do not have to wear used uniforms and have books. Our scholar Steve wisely noted, “I love that the professor just tells me what the homework is and I pull out my workbook and do it!” The difficult decision to not buy books was often made out of necessity for his family’s food. His mother would ask, “This is how much money I have for the day. Which do you choose: the book or your tummy?” These are not decisions that I ever had to make, nor will I ever have to make because of a privilege I was born into. I feel it is my responsibility to humanity to do my part to make a more just life for all people.
6. Are there any other stories or things you want to add or elaborate on?
Without Starfish, finishing high school is only a dream for many of our students. High costs and other necessities often create the sad reality that education just cannot be a priority. But our students know that the way to break that cycle is to finish their studies and help their families and communities to succeed. Our students have found a way to make their studies a priority.