Once a man was walking along a beach. The sun was shining and it was a beautiful day. Off in the distance he could see a person going back and forth between the surf’s edge and the beach. Back and forth this person went. As the man approached he could see that there were hundreds of starfish stranded on the sand as the result of the natural action of the tide.
The man was struck by the apparent futility of the task. There were far too many starfish. Many of them were sure to perish. As he approached, the person continued the task of picking up starfish one by one and throwing them into the surf.
He came up to the person and said, “You must be crazy. There are thousands of miles of beach covered with starfish. You can’t possibly make a difference.” The person looked at the man. He then stooped down and picked up one more starfish and threw it back into the ocean. He turned back to the man and said, “It sure made a difference to that one!”
This is the story that inspired the name for David Leiners’ Starfish School (Escola Estrela do Mar for our Portuguese speaking friends) outside of Maceio Brazil. It also serves as the perfect metaphor for what is happening at this remarkable place. While it would be impossible to help every child in this area, the Starfish School sure is making a difference for every child that walks through the door.
Driving through the slums outside of Maceio you cannot help but be overwhelmed by the sheer poverty surrounding you–shacks stacked on top of one another like Legos on the hillside, grown men sitting on the railroad tracks and drinking beer at 1:00 on a Friday afternoon. We stop at what at first glance appears to be a beautiful and majestic bay, but upon further inspection we see that the water is so polluted that you wouldn’t dare dip a toe into the sewage infested water. As we drive back towards the school you wonder how anyone ever makes it out of such a sad place.
You wonder until you set foot inside the Starfish School. It’s a completely different world inside of these walls. There are children laughing and playing and an overwhelming sense of hope and joy fills the air, something totally absent from the world outside.
David tells us stories of the children’s lives outside of school. One child’s father had sold every possession in their home to raise money for drugs, another child had recently come to school without a uniform because that was sold as well. After hearing these stories you truly develop an appreciation for what is taking place at this school. Not only is it a place of learning, but it serves as a sanctuary from the harsh realities of the day to day struggles of just living in a community like this one.
Students must meet several criteria to gain acceptance into the school. They must reside in the area and be from a low income family and home visits are made to confirm these factors. For children to gain admittance to the elementary levels an emphasis is placed on adaptability. This means they must be able to join the program without being a distraction or without slowing the progress of the existing students. There is no tuition to attend the school, however they do ask several things of the parents. They must show up at the school every few months and clean for several hours. They also require the parents to sign a contract, stating that they will be strong supporters of their child’s education. Education cannot be a part time commitment.
Sure, the school is amazing, but why did we visit? Well, it has been with the aid of our friends at Worldfund that this school has been able to thrive. The school was started in a small shack in 2005 and now resides in a beautiful building, walled in and protected from the crime outside. Starting with 27 students the school now has an enrollment of 90. The curriculum at the Starfish Schools aims to provide a complete education, with an emphasis on health and personal development. They also serve nothing but nutritious meals at the school. During our visit I enjoyed what was far and away the tastiest and healthiest school lunch I’ve ever had.
In an area where 11,000 school-age children don’t have access to education, it’s inspiring to visit a place like Escola Estrela do Mar. These children are gaining invaluable tools that will hopefully help them break free from the poverty in which they currently reside. In the years to come, with the continued support of Worldfund, the Starfish School will be able to reach out to even more children, and make a difference in even more lives.