Soledad O Brien

Source: Steve Mack / Getty

On the heels of Hurricane Katrina’s 10th anniversary, Soledad O’Brien held her 5th Annual Starfish Foundation Gala, the award-winning journalist’s initiative to mentor promising young women from the New Orleans area, give them monetary and emotional support, and foster opportunities for their success.

The Foundation was created out of both passion and need. Hurricane Katrina, one of the deadliest natural disasters in United States history, nearly destroyed New Orleans in 2005. O’Brien and husband Brad Raymond were one of the many who helped, but the two took things one step further with the Starfish Foundation.

In an exclusive interview with NewsOne, O’Brien discussed what the 10-year anniversary of the catastrophe means for her and the young women she’s mentored through the program.

“I was very frustrated,” she told NewsOne. “I saw that there were so many people who were pregnant and there were ways that we could be helpful. Everyone was trying to figure out, ‘How do we make it work?’ I saw the same thing in education and all of these young women who needed opportunities but couldn’t afford them,” she said.

“So we started with (the grant) One Beyond Woman and we have grown to 25 scholars every year. We do everything, some of our scholars are moms, some of our scholars need internships and are now out of New Orleans and in a bunch of other cities around the country. It really is about a family approach to taking care of something. ‘What do you as an individual need?’ Instead of, ‘Hey, I’m gonna cut a check and you’re gonna get these three things.’”

O’Brien was joined by her scholars for the Foundation’s celebration at Espace in NYC. Keeping the NOLA theme present, New Orleans cuisine was offered courtesy of Chef Susan Spicer, and sounds were provided by Grammy Award-winning trumpeter Irvin Mayfield, as well as members of the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra.

Scholars and mentors alike shared stories with the audience, proving just how much education can change someone’s life. O’Brien opened up about Tyshell King, a Baltimore native and basketball star at Georgetown University.

5th Annual Starfish Foundation Gala

Source: Getty / Getty

King’s father was gunned down a few months before she was to begin her college career. Struggling to find a way to pay for school, King (pictured left) met O’Brien and formed a special connection beyond a scholarship and school assistance.

“Not everyone has the same access to opportunity, but you can give them that,” she said. “I wanted her to speak tonight and she said, ‘I really am not a good public speaker.’ I said, ‘I’m asking you to step outside of your comfort zone and do something that makes you uncomfortable.’”

King’s story was filled with comedic relief and honesty, as she spoke about O’Brien, Raymond, and her mentor (pictured above right), a young mom who also started at the Foundation in its earlier years.

“‘I wouldn’t ask you to do it if you couldn’t succeed and that’s it,” O’Brien continued. “‘If you don’t want to do I won’t make you do it, but you’re a grown person. This is the kind of stuff that builds you’ and I said, ‘I want you to write thank you notes. I want you to thank the people who’ve helped you along the way.’ It’s about thanking people. She wrote a great speech and you’ll hear it tonight. She went from, ‘Oh I can’t, to oh I can and I will.’ That’s where we’re at.”

Over the years, statistics have shown that woman of color are still continuing their education through college, but are struggling to fund it. In its latest report on the Pell Grant program, the Education Department said nearly three-quarters of the 8.6 million students who received the federal grant to attend college last year reported having no savings or other cash on hand. Separate studies also revealed more than half of African-American and Latina students are low-income, falling into the trap of attending college with little options towards paying it back. Some are able to apply for successful scholarships and programs like the Pell Grant, but O’Brien says the Starfish Foundation continues with programs after graduation.

“You might need tutoring, and this person might need child care, and this person might need a little back-up financial help,” she said. “This person might need gas for their car, all those things are what help you to be successful and get through college, and that’s what we’re there for. Then after college, they move towards the graduate area, and so they get a lot of support in terms of how they build their careers.”

With the help of sponsors like Macy’s, Google, Rush Philanthropic Arts Foundation, Lyft, HBO, and others, the Starfish Foundation has successfully helped many women of color by adding 25 scholars every year. Through this growth, the program has also been able to help hundreds more with their day-long PowHERful Summit.

Find out more about the Starfish Foundation and how you can help create Black girl magic with Soledad here.

PHOTO CREDIT: Neilson Barnard/Getty

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