Friday, July 25, 2014

A Visit to South Africa

Starfish’s own Nicola Atherstone visited projects in South Africa. This is what she shares with us:

After a long ride on a dusty, dirt road crossed by cows and goats, we arrived at Keiskamma, an isolated, rural community without running water or electricity. Rainwater is collected in large, green JoJo tanks for daily use at the preschool.  The daycare center in Keiskamma cares for 34 children, who were all very happy to see us and showed off their knowledge of numbers, letters and days of the week with song and dance. The children receive two hot meals a day, which are cooked in a tiny kitchen over a gas stove, and a flourishing vegetable garden provides healthy, fresh food for the children.

The afterschool center across from the high school, offers students homework support, computer facilities, a library and driving instruction. We also visited Keiskamma’s impressive Arts and Crafts Co-op, which creates jobs for the talented women in the community (and where I collected the 200 beautifully hand-made orange Starfish keyrings for our NYC Gala!)

The following day we visited Loaves & Fishes Network, where a workshop on childcare was underway for childcare workers and parents, while the preschools we visited were training staff members on sanitation and nutrition for the children.  Their focus on training and development is a critical part of helping their community help themselves.

I was struck by how well cared for and happy the children are, and what an impact the teachers are making in daycare centers that are little more then a corrugated iron shack. These preschools receive teaching packages from Starfish, with educational materials for the preschool curriculum, and funding for the teacher’s stipends. Hot meals are served for breakfast and lunch,

Late that afternoon we stopped in at Nceduluntu, a community plagued by hunger, unemployment, poverty, abuse and neglect. The need for the newly hired Starfish social worker, Memory, was clear. The social worker makes regular home visits to the almost 300 children who come to the day care center and the 150 students who attend the aftercare center after school.

In Kwa-Zulu Natal we visited Ethembeni, (which means “Place of Hope”) with their well-equipped Family Center, staffed by enthusiastic foreign volunteers who were immersed in computer training programs for the community. Ethembeni provides over 50 families with food parcels, counseling and general support to families. Their Residential Care Centre cares for AIDS and TB patients on four hospital beds in a modest clinic.

There are many more projects planned for the coming year. How will you support the children of South Africa?

Monday, March 3, 2014

"For My Whole Life, This is What I Wanted to Do" Interview with Executive Director Nicola Atherstone

Nicola Atherstone is the Executive Director of Starfish Greathearts USA. We wanted to learn more about her and how she got involved with Starfish. Here is our interview.

Tell me about yourself. What was your childhood like? 
I grew up in a small dairy farm in Kwazulu-Natal. After graduating from Pietermaritzburg University, I backpacked around Europe, then went to Jo-burg to work in investor relationships. Service is a big part of my life, and while I was working, I also volunteered in a girls’ orphanage. I participated in the equivalent of the big brother/big sister program, and mentored three girls there for many years. Every Tuesday, and many weekends, I would spend time with the girls. It gave me some idea what the girls go through in their everyday life. 
How did you first hear of Starfish?
It was actually during this time when I was working and volunteering after university that I heard about Starfish. Anthony Farr, the guy who started Starfish, is a friend of a friend. He heard that I was interested in volunteering, and asked me to help out with PR and website content. I went to the first ever Starfish event, and then helped organize subsequent events in South Africa. Altogether, I’d say that I volunteered for Starfish in South Africa for over 10 years. 

Wow, I had no idea you were involved in Starfish for so long! What drew you to the organization? 
I remember hearing this banker colleague who went to rural communities to see Starfish projects. He came back and said, this is what must be done. We can’t just live in our ivory tower—we have to be hands-on and do something to help. And that’s what Starfish does: the projects are really tangible things like giving kids books, hot meals, and uniforms. These are basic things to make life so much better. We make a real difference, directly, and build from the ground up. 

So then you came to the US. How did you keep helping Starfish? 
I moved to the U.S. in 2002, but I continued to feel strongly connected to South Africa and wanted to meet other South Africans and give something back. I found out about Starfish in the U.S., and started out organizing the first gala and helping out with fundraising and raising awareness. That’s what I did until last year, when I became Executive Director. 

How did you feel when you were offered the job?
Being Executive Director of Starfish is my dream job. I’ve always said that when my kids are older, I want to give back to South Africa and work with children. For my whole life, this is what I really wanted to do. When the last ED, Kristy Gordon, said she was leaving, I really wanted the job. Of course, part of me was hesitant because I have young children (Holden, who is 9, and Jasper, who is 5), but this was too good of an opportunity to give it up. I knew that I could make a big difference, and help bring continuity to the organization.

What’s been the most fulfilling part of the job? 
Sending back more money back to South Africa than we’ve ever had in just one month. We were able to fund six projects for the next six months, all after one month of fundraising. And seeing the difference that this money makes in the lives of children. It’s also great to work with our board members, who are all volunteers with amazing professional experiences and incredible passion and motivation. 

What would you say to people who are thinking of becoming involved in Starfish? 
We need your help! It’s a great way to give back to South Africa. We are so privileged to be here in the U.S. This is our chance to give back and really make a big difference to the life of a child in our home country. Starfish is a small organization, so you can really get involved at the grassroots level. You can have a lot of contact with the people you are supporting. You know where your money is going and the impact you are having on the kids. 

And your kids? Do they understand what you’re doing? 
Yes. They know that I’m working hard to help children in South Africa, children like them. 

--Leana Wen & Sebastian Walker

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

A Starfish in the Ocean

A young girl was walking along a beach upon which thousands of starfish had been washed up during a terrible storm. When she came to each starfish, she would pick it up, and throw it back into the ocean. People watched her with amusement.

She had been doing this for some time when a man approached her and said, “Little girl, why are you doing this? Look at this beach! You can’t save all these starfish. You can’t begin to make a difference!”

The girl seemed crushed, suddenly deflated. But after a few moments, she bent down, picked up another starfish, and hurled it as far as she could into the ocean.

Then she looked up at the man and replied, “Well, I made a difference to that one!”

The old man looked at the girl and thought about what she had done and said. He joined the little girl in throwing starfish back into the sea. Soon others joined, and all the starfish were saved.

This is the story of Starfish. Some say that it’s a folk tale; others say it was adapted from The Star Thrower by Loren Eiseley.

For us, it’s the story of children in Africa who are orphaned by HIV/AIDS. In South Africa, there are 2 million children who are orphaned by AIDS, and over 500,000 are themselves are infected.

These colossal numbers can be difficult to take in, but in the face of such overwhelming statistics, our work is more vital than ever before. The people we are helping are not numbers, but children, each with their own stories.

We are starting this blog to help share these stories. These are stories from the children, and from the volunteers and local partners who are making a difference in their own communities. These are from all of you.

Will you join us and save one starfish in the ocean?
--Leana Wen & Sebastian Walker