While most reporters cut tape following the Hurricane Katrina devastation in 2005, others, like Soledad O’Brien and Kim Bondy, recognized that the story wasn’t over. Bondy introduced O’Brien and husband Brad Raymond to a young woman with a bright educational future that was in danger of never coming to fruition.

Alexia Wilson was planning to attend Ursuline Academy in New Orleans. But with her mother already facing tough decisions, such as whether to pay the light bill or the rent, the possibility of attending seemed bleak. O’Brien and Raymond responded quickly to ensure that Wilson’s pursuit for education didn’t stop before it got started. They started the Starfish Foundation to support young women in need of educational opprotunities.
Wilson, now 18 and attending Loyola University in Chicago, was the first scholar with the Starfish Foundation.
Last Thursday, the foundation held their annual “New Orleans to New York City Gala” to celebrate the achievements of their scholars and its impact on their lives.
Like First Lady Michelle Obama discussed in our current issue, O’Brien said an access to education for young women is critical to their success. “There’s so many things that are not available to you if you don’t have a college degree, and there are lots of ways in which you can get derailed,” O’Brien said. “So really what we decided to do was to make sure we were supporting people and I think Michelle Obama is doing the same thing.”
The scholars are pursuing their dreams through education with the help of the Foundation’s financial support. Many of the scholars make it clear, however, that this is more than a scholarship.
“I thank them for doing so much for me financially, but also giving me hope to become the first in my family to graduate high school and attend college,” said Skylar Samson, 17, a senior in high school who said she could remember a time when she couldn’t even see herself making it this far.
She was physically and emotionally abused at 8 years old, and was put in a mental hospital at 15. She describes this time as a “lonely time in her life.” Samson said the Starfish Foundation scholarship helped her to regain her focus and restore her hope in having a bright future. Now, she shares her story in hopes of inspiring other girls like her to keep going.
“Never give up,” she said. “That’s what I did at first, and it took me a long time to decide ‘no, I shouldn’t give up, I should keep going.’ Just because things didn’t work out, doesn’t mean that I had to give up my future.”
Another component of the scholarship is being connected with mentors to help keep the scholars on track and offer additional support.
Kate Moore, corporate attorney at Hogan Lovells, is Samson’s mentor. Moore said the opportunity to impact Samson’s life has been gratifying. This summer, the two went to see the “Les Mis” Broadway show, something Moore says she grew up doing.
“You can always find the time to become involved,” Moore said. “People need you and you can’t just take your success for granted. The reason you are successful is because in some way or another someone helped you.”
And like their mentors, the scholars also hope to continue the trend of paying it forward.
Lexus Thomas-Trail, 18, will be attending Tulane University in the Fall. She plans on double majoring inBusiness management and Foreign Languages.
After college, she wants to create her own non-profit to give access to education to young black girls,even outside of America’s borders. She said the foundation helps to empower her as a young black woman.
Thomas-Trail said: “To me, because I feel like the black race in general is viewed as a lesser race. Soledad and Brad Raymond is giving me the opportunity to prove that stereotype wrong.”