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