Starfysh is Grand Experiment in Human Compassion to La Gonave Haitians

Written by Paul R. Kopenkoskey on . Posted in Local

Starfysh cutline No. 1Starfysh founder/president Steve Edmondson prays with a mother and her gravely ill daughter.Dr. Steve Edmondson acknowledges he felt over his head when he launched Starfysh, a nonprofit grass roots movement that started with a simple idea that has since mushroomed to some ambitious initiatives intended to alleviate the abject poverty of the 100,000 people who live on the island of La Gonave, Haiti.

"Mine is a story of what God can do even when someone is ill equipped," said Edmondson, an affable man who's a family practice physician in Saranac and the founder and president of Starfysh. "It's since become obvious to me God had something bigger than I had in mind. Since then, I've tried to keep up with what God is doing with us."

Starfysh derives its name from an essay in Loren Eisley's book, "The Starthrower" which tells the story of a wave of starfish washed up on the beach, and how throwing even one back into the sea makes a difference to that one starfish.

In essence, that is Starfysh, said Edmondson — spelled with a "y" because another website domain name had already been purchased with the traditional spelling.

"I created a nonprofit organization in 2010 with no intention of changing the world," said Edmondson. "I bought a book titled 'Nonprofits for Dummies.' I gathered businesspeople and friends and shared what my idea could be. They caught on to it."

Started with a missions trip

Starfysh No. 2 Stacy Oldenberg holds a copy of Starfysh’s first Creole language book titled, “An Nou Li” (“Let’s Read!”), a high quality preschool level reader.Founding a ministry like Starfysh was not on Edmonson's mind when he agreed in 1993 to go on a medical missions trip to help out at the 35-bed hospital on Gonave Island.

When he arrived, the conditions at the hospital were substandard by Western standards.

Edmondson kept returning to La Gonave with teams tagging along to accomplish repairs to the hospital and to provide medical supplies, among other things.

Island captured heart

"The island captured my heart and imagination," said Edmondson. "I kept going back doing more sophisticated things to bring down equipment or arrange for things to be fixed. Around 2009, I became restless in my spirit. I always knew I'd be in the fray."

And since deciding to go full-tilt, Starfysh has blossomed to the following areas of focus:

Literacy and education. With an adult literacy rate in Haiti of only 53 percent, Starfysh is working to foster early childhood learning and reading on La Gonave by producing and distributing Creole language literature and resources used by school libraries across the island.

Starfysh No. 3 This is Starfysh’s moringa product. “Life Garden” (as seen on the label) is what Starfysh founder Steve Edmondson refers to as its agriculture research and demonstration garden project.This is where Stacy Oldenberg comes in, who works in educational development. He's written books in the Creole language with the help of translators Haitian context, as well as book written by writers and illustrators with the children of La Gonave, all with an eye on increasing literacy with young Haitians at its two schools.

Starfysh recently published its second Creole early-childhood reader in 2015 titled, "Adventures with Twiga", a bilingual mentor-text that Haitian teachers can follow in writing stories and use to discuss quality literature with their students.

"The whole point of education is to create problem solvers," said Oldenberg. "We're training them to be thinkers and problem solvers, instead of learning and taking tests by rote."

Starfysh in May also will break ground for a new pre-kindergarten to 6th grade school that will be ready in the fall.

A local school district is partnering with Starfysh, too. Forest Hills Schools' Global Learners Initiative has delved into the cross-cultural sharing of written stories between classrooms here and classrooms at La Gonave. Forest Hills also is considering funding a small grant for an exploratory visit to the island.

Agriculture. Among Starfysh's crop growing project's is what has been dubbed Life Garden, a place where farmers from all across the island learn about crops and trees that can be grown in their own particular situations.

Starfysh No. 4 Bruce and Amy Kulfan and family, from Grand Rapids, are Starfysh’s first missionaries who will serve as field directors.Also exciting to Edmondson is the moringa tree's leaves indigenous to La Gonave that are packed with an incredible amount of nutrition: protein that Edmondson has termed a super food.

"It grows prolifically on the island and it's something so nutritious for the Haitians and we're hoping to create a pipeline to set it up as a free trade situation," said Edmondson.

Economic development. Starfysh is making a direct impact on the La Gonave economy by purchasing items from local artisans and vendors. In some cases it has been able to sell their creations to the United States and return to purchase more.

Island health. The majority of people who live on La Gonave never see a doctor or dentist. Two medical teams and one dental team were deployed in 2015 and are returning this year. Community health education include the benefits of drinking clean water and hand washing and using latrines. Starfysh continues to host visiting medical teams with an emphasis on promoting long-term changes in people's lives.

Clean water. The majority of Haitians do not have access to clean water, nor to they have running water. It's why many become ill of water-born diseases such as cholera, why one out of three children are infected with intestinal parasites and why diarrhea is the No. 1 cause of death in Haiti. In 2015, Starfysh installed 567 biosand water filters, the majority of them in the villages of Mapou, Plaine Mapou, Nan Mangot and Etroits and other villages that dot the island.

Evangelism. What good is it if they gain the whole world but lose their soul? Edmondson asks. As a result of the community health education work in the various villages on the island, 250 families in November 2015 heard the Gospel and 57 people came to faith in Christ; last December, the Gospel was shared with 259 families with 117 people professing faith in Him.

"We want to move them out of desperate poverty and to a life of dignity," said Edmondson. "They know how poor they are. They understand they're one of the poorest nations on the planet. We want to move them to the point that they are proud to be a person created by God."

Author Information
Paul R. Kopenkoskey
Author: Paul R. KopenkoskeyWebsite:
Paul R. Kopenkoskey is a full-time freelance writer and editor for an assortment of publications including Grand Rapids Magazine, Grand Rapids Business Journal, and Faith Grand Rapids magazine. He has completed his first novel with the working title, Karl Beguiled. He and his wife, Barb, live in Wyoming, Michigan. They have three children and five grandchildren.

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