For years, American Andrew Stein regularly traveled to Latin America for work
He began performing magic shows for children at orphanages
Stein set up the Orphaned Starfish Foundation to teach IT skills at orphanages
Andy Stein shifts on the balls of his feet, leans against a wooden railing, and fidgets.
In front of him, a CNN camera-man readjusts the light stand. Behind him, a group of children calls out from a distance, “Tio Mago.”
Stein turns. “They’re calling me ‘Uncle Magician,’” he says with a gleam. “We really do need to hurry. I have to do the magic show before we leave. I promised them.”
The interview ends a few minutes later, and Stein, 52, bounds up the brick steps of the Senderos de Paz, a home for Colombian children ranging from ages 3 to 10, with the same youthful energy as the dozens of tiny audience members, awaiting the show.
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Stein’s magic tricks are rudimentary and well-worn. Nevertheless, they still delight. The children crowd to the front, eager to see how they’re done.
“Magic is a tool,” says Stein. “It’s a way to make the children feel like they have the ability to do anything in the world.”
A long way from Manhattan
For Stein, it was a long trip to reach Senderos. And not just in terms of airline miles.
Perched above a little village, with picturesque views overlooking downtown Medellin, this is about as far away as you can get from the hustle surrounding the midtown Manhattan office where Stein once worked.
“I’m a recovering banker,” he confides. “But my wife says you never fully recover.”
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For 25 years, Stein plied his trade in the banking industry, helping finance scores of infrastructure projects across Latin America and Asia.
“I was one of the top fliers in the United States on Continental Airlines,” he says. “I was traveling incessantly. So I decided to go to every country manager and say that if you wanted me to come and pitch business, you had to find me an orphanage, two hours in the schedule, and let me play with some kids. That was going to be my salvation for these trips.”
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But it was a conversation he had with a Catholic nun, at an orphanage in Chile, that changed everything.
“She said ‘I’m not sure if you know what happens here, but at the age of 18, by law, these girls are considered adults. And they have to leave our little home. And 100% of these girls become prostitutes or live on the streets.”
Stein says he and the nuns sat down and determined education and job training would be the pathways to helping provide opportunities to children, once they aged-out of the system. He then returned home to New York and convinced one of his top clients, a law firm, to file the paperwork necessary to create a charity. He then went to family and friends and raised about $40,000 to build a state-of-the-art computer center in the orphanage.
“Six months later I went back, and it was magic,” says Stein. “The younger kids became top of their class. The older kids learned how to use Microsoft Office, so they learned how to use the keyboard. They had a skill.”
‘Life always gives you second chances’
Today, the Orphaned Starfish Foundation has 50 computer centers in 25 countries around the world, helping over 10,000 children who are victims of abuse, trafficking or poverty.
Monica Morales is one of them. Now 21, her parents had both been murdered by guerrilla fighters in Northern Colombia, before her fifth birthday. By the time Morales turned 11, she says she’d been abused by several people entrusted with her care, including a family friend, who repeatedly sold her off to other families that wanted children.
“The husbands would abuse me sexually and I was mistreated physically and verbally,” says Morales.
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Eventually, Morales was brought to Casa de la China, a home for abused girls in Medellin, which works with the Orphaned Starfish Foundation. There things finally began to change.
“I started to study and to dance and do things I never thought I would be able to do,” says Morales.
Recently, the foundation provided Morales with a scholarship to study fashion design at a local university. And her designs are being featured on the catwalks in Medellin.
“My dream is to be a great fashion designer, a great dancer, a great person and help to build more dreams for others,” she says.
Morales is quick to offer her appreciation to the man who started the Orphaned Starfish Foundation.
“He’s like a father,” says Morales. “Life always gives you second chances and that’s what this is.”
A father to some. A magician to others. But Stein says there’s no secret or sleight of hand in the work he does. It just comes down to caring.
“When I go back and I talked to my old friends in banking, people ask if I miss the toys, if I miss the big houses,” says Stein.
“I live in a 600 square-foot apartment in Astoria, Queens. And I tell them I don’t miss it really at all. I have the very incredible feeling of knowing what I was put here to do, and the ability to do it. There is magic in the world. You can, with just a little bit, make more of a difference than you can possibly imagine.”