Starfish Stories: AmeriCorps to AIF

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The 2010-2011 Progress Elementary School Team in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

In 2010, I joined AmeriCorps’ City Year program because I saw it as an opportunity to use my academic understanding of oppression for something practical, specifically education reform in Louisiana. However, I was naïve to think that my educational background, experience in advocacy work and good intentions were sufficient tools with which to change the public school system. Although disillusioning at the time, this experience taught me how to balance my desire for social change with the reality of how slowly systems change.

City Year has a number of “founding stories” that are meant to ground corps members throughout their year of service; my favorite of these is the Starfish Story:

A young girl sees that hundreds of starfish have been washed ashore after a bad storm. She begins picking up the starfish, one by one, and throwing them back into the ocean. A man sees her and laughs; he tells her that she’s wasting her time as she will never be able to save all of the starfish. The young girl picks up another starfish and throws it into the water saying, “I made a difference to that one.”

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My big sister (and fellow City Year alumni!) Yazmin came to City Year’s Opening Day Ceremony in 2010.

This story, while cheesy, meant a lot to me during my year of service. Trying to improve literacy rates in a broken school system was such a daunting and slow moving task that it often felt useless. Looking out for Starfish Stories, or moments of change, was a helpful way to focus on the good we hoped we were doing. It was also an avenue for corps members to encourage each other in what were often trying situations.

There are many similarities between AIF and City Year. Both are founded in idealism and have the broad goal of inspiring civic mindedness and development. AmeriCorps was a foundational experience in my career; the Clinton Fellowship offers me a parallel opportunity to apply the skills I have developed over the last six years in another country I find myself deeply invested in.

My AIF placement is with Broadleaf Health and Education Alliance (HEA); a small but fiercely dedicated public health NGO in Darjeeling. Broadleaf HEA was established in 2011, its Community Health and Hygiene Improvement Program (CHHIP) trains lay health workers to conduct health education in primary schools in the rural Himalayas. CHHIP works with students whose families earn approximately $2 per day and their schools generally lack basic infrastructures such as running water, electricity and toilets. Half of all students in control schools have intestinal parasites and 40% have been diagnosed with iron deficiency anemia.

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The 2016-2017 Broadleaf Health and Education Alliance Team in Darjeeling, West Bengal.

A few weeks into working with Broadleaf, we were discussing a way to regularly capture success stories and I suggested Starfish Stories. Everyone liked the idea and I got to roll out the idea to our four School Health Activists (SHAs), in Hindi! Then each SHA shared an inspiring story in Nepali and my coworker translated them into English as I typed them up. It was a beautiful moment of different language and programmatic spheres coming into focus.

Here’s one Starfish Story from SHA Nima: In Padeng Primary School there was a CHHIP student named Anuja* who was always absent from school because she had frequent headaches. Her parents would take her to traditional healers but her headaches continued. After CHHIP’s vision screening, Anuja and her parents were told that her headaches were caused by eyestrain and that Anuja needed glasses.

At first, her father did not believe that eyesight was the problem and refused to bring Anuja to the eye doctor. Instead Nima and her mother brought Anuja to get her glasses. Now that she has glasses her headaches have stopped and she is no longer absent from school. After seeing Anuja’s headaches stop her father now believes that eyesight was the problem and even brought her to the eye doctor for a follow up.

I hope that the Starfish Stories become a tool for the SHAs to highlight victories in the way that were for myself and the other City Year corps members.

*The student’s name has been changed to respect her privacy.

Yasin is excited to explore, live and work in West Bengal. Her goals are to gain a practical understanding of how to overcome structural inequality and provide sustainable public health services. Prior to AIF and after completing her MPH, she participated in an Urdu fellowship in Lucknow, India. She is excited to combine her Urdu/Hindi with Public Health.

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