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As a 7th grader, Maria is already the most educated woman in her family. She was adopted as a baby and today lives with her mother and 2 younger siblings in a crowded family compound in Santiago, Atitlan Guatemala. Maria’s mother worked tirelessly washing laundry for neighbors to ensure that her daughter got through primary school, and is extremely proud of that achievement. However, she was not able to cover the increased costs of secondary school, and Maria’s academic career appeared over at age 12.

Starfish One-by-One found Maria an invited her to participate in the scholarship-mentorship program for young women in secondary school. In her positive peer-support group of 15, Maria quickly rose to be viewed by the others as a leader. She developed a very strong relationship with her Starfish Mentor, Wendy. Maria absorbed the program content like a sponge- particularly the module on personal financial literacy. But halfway through the year, Maria’s participation suddenly started waning, and her academic performance suddenly dropped off and she became quiet and non-participatory in the Mentor-led peer sessions.

After 2 weeks of this, Wendy took Maria aside to see what had happened. Maria confessed that her alcoholic uncles (with whom her family shared the compound) had begun to make sexual advances on her, and she no longer felt safe at home. Instead of being at home and doing her homework, she preferred to be out in the streets and away from the danger that her home life presented. Her mother, single and illiterate, had no other immediate housing options available and could only try to keep Maria by her side while she worked washing laundry.

Wendy, the Starfish Mentor, had effectively created a strong and empathetic bond with Maria and her mother. Her own innate skill and Starfish training had made her an expert in subjects like academic support, financial literacy, reproductive education, and other crucial subjects that each young woman will master by the time she finishes the 6-year Starfish program. Yet Wendy found herself in the difficult situation of trying to help Maria but not having the professional training to do so.

This is not the first time that Starfish Mentors have come across this problem. Violence is notoriously underreported, but one recent study asserts that 9 out of every 10 women in Guatemala has been a victim of some form of violence in the home. Starfish aims to provide each young woman with the skills to prevent domestic violence as well as to help each of its victims cope and recover from its devastating consequences.

Starfish has identified an expert in the field. The JUCONI Foundation of Mexico maintains a technical support program that provides practice-proven methodology and training for practitioners. JUCONI’s internationally-recognized training program tailors its trainings to the specific contexts of its clients. JUCONI is ideally suited to train the Starfish Mentors in how to effectively prevent and treat family violence.


Founded in 2007, Starfish One-by-One focuses on empowering and educating adolescent, indigenous young women through partial secondary school scholarships and personalized mentorship. Young women are selected and then placed in 15-member peer support groups that are facilitated on a weekly basis by a community-based mentor. Mentors are from the same area, are university-level educated, and have overcome the same obstacles that these young women face. Mentors occupy a unique role as advocate, coach and friend. They accompany their groups through a core curriculum that combines academic support with modules on critical information pertaining to the following subjects:
• reproductive education
• women’s rights
• personal financial administration
• nutrition and health
• eadership and critical thinking
• environmental stewardship

Likewise, the mentors regularly visit schools and families to monitor the progress of each young woman and to help her overcome the gambit of obstacles that stem from economic, family and social pressures that would otherwise provoke the abandonment of her studies. Each young woman receives a partial scholarship that covers roughly 75% of her school-related costs. The weekly 15-member peer group also provides a unique and safe space in which each young woman is supported by others who face similar obstacles and pressures on a daily basis.

This initiative is now in its third year and benefits 153 youths. Last year’s academic results demonstrate the effectiveness of the intervention: 95% of the young women in the program successfully passed their academic year. Similarly, all the beneficiaries have made significant strides in integrating themselves into their communities and resources. Among the indicators of increased social participation, each has an individual bank account, conducts regular community service, and has an active email account.


Through a Mentor’s capacity to effectively prevent and respond to issues of domestic violence, Starfish One-by-One ensures that each young woman in the program is capable of fulfilling her potential and applying her talents to the benefit of her family and community.

Starfish One-by-One’s own experience echoes worldwide data related to girls’ education. A girl in the developing world with 7 or more years of education marries 4 years later and has 2.2 fewer children. Each year of secondary school boosts her future wages by 15-25%. Additionally, she invests 90% of her earnings back into her family (versus only 30-40% for a man). Clearly, excluded Mayan girls in Guatemala have a great capacity to become powerful agents of change.

Team Credentials

Starfish One-by-One’s program is guided by a team of experienced female professionals in Guatemala, all of whom have overcome the same obstacles that the young women in the program face today. This unique team ensures an extremely high cultural relevance and sensitivity- a critical feature when addressing sensitive issues like reproductive education in a country like Guatemala.

Guatemala Operations are led by:

Norma Baján Balán, In-Country Director. Norma is the youngest of 9 children and from a small village in the department of Sololá. She is the first in her family to graduate from university (in accounting) and has over 9 years experience working for poverty-alleviation programs in Guatemala. Norma is indigenous Katchiquel and resides in Panajachel, Guatemala.


  • October 2015 Update

    At Starfish, we are dedicated to providing educational workshops and trainings that aim to increase knowledge of reproductive rights and prevent domestic violence and sexual assault among our staff and students. To this end, we continue to partner with a wide range of organizations to provide high quality trainings to our mentors and staff with information that can be integrated into our mentorship curriculum. This year, we partnered with JUCONI, the Trauma Resilience Institute (TRI), ADEMKAN, WINGS Guatemala, Population Council, and Dr. Beth Osnes and Chelsea Hackett to integrate a wide range of courses into our curriculum. These workshops are adapted to our unique cultural context in order to effectively reach the students and families in the Starfish program. In the Spring of 2015, Candy, a Starfish graduate and New Horizons participant, started working as a mentor for an organization called Population Council through their Abriendo Oportunidades (Opening Opportunities) program. ...
  • A day in the life of a mentor

    [font=arial, sans-serif]Who is a Starfish Mentor? She is the key to keeping a young woman in school and thriving. Meet Vilma, a Starfish mentor who speaks about who she is and how this influences her work with young women in Starfish.[/font]]
  • Update from Starfish One by One

    The Starfish One by One Project recently provided an update on their Preventing Family Violence Project. Attached are pictures of the project. Starfish Mentor Vilma presents Family and Community systems that need to be considered when conducting family work. Starfish staff learn the use of personal safety plans to help students and families positively manage their emotions. Mentors help young girls and their families create and maintain a vision for the future. Here, lead Starfish mentor Candelaria helps a mother and daughter create positive channels of communication. Alison Lane, Director of JUCONI Mexico, discusses Trauma and Attachment Theory with the Starfish staff.


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