NEW YORK — Business, education, and media industry magnates gathered last week in the West Village for the Soledad O’Brien + Brad Raymond Foundation’s annual gala.
“I think this year we’ve really hit our stride,” said CNN’s Starting Point anchor and enterprise journalist Soledad O’Brien, coming out of a flurry of flashbulbs on the red carpet. “The goal was to have 25 young women. And I remember when we had nine, and last year we were coming on 15 and it felt like it was a little bit of a distant goal. This year we have 25 young women we are supporting—and we have met our goal.”
Just as her work in New Orleans covering Hurricane Katrina served as the impetus for much of the foundation’s efforts, O’Brien’s reporting on Hurricane Sandy was one of the inspirations to host the benefit in Manhattan over the Hamptons. “It just felt we have a lot of supporters who are here in the city, and so it was time to stay in New York City and bring a little New Orleans to New York City,” she said of an evening that featured a Southern-style menu, jazz band, and Mardi Gras masks and beads.
The mentorship-cum-scholarship program for struggling girls has also evolved, as the organization partnered with Credit Suisse, Google, and Macy’s this year for a day-long, intensive self-esteem boosting PowHerful Summit that drew in about 150 young women. Sessions on empowerment, STEM fields, how to apply to college, how to get an internship, and how to network were offered during the event.
“We have been doing very specific mentoring techniques,” said O’Brien. “I think we’ve really proven that we are financially really solid. We’re picking women who are hugely successful and are moving sort of off our roll so that we can replace them with other young women who need support. Still, they stay in terms of mentoring the girls who are still there.”
Indeed that’s exactly what Sheba Turk, a former mentee and scholarship recipient who is now a field reporter for the CBS affiliate in New Orleans (WWLTV), has done.
“I still kind of get the mentoring,” said the budding journalist. “I’m not officially mentoring other girls, but we all talk to each other and stay in touch. It’s pretty cool that I get to help others they way they helped me.” What sets the program apart from many other scholarship funds, said Turk, is specifically that personalized element. “There are a lot of scholarship programs that help you pay for school. I had some of those other ones help me pay for college.
“None of them, though, provide you with a one-on-one mentor that you can literally call and talk to about everything, and that goes beyond just educational questions. A lot of the girls have life issues, like I had. You have family questions, you have personal issues, and you get to ask questions you wouldn’t get to ask to someone who is an official mentor. They place you with someone you really bond with.”
Fellow New Orleanian Alexia Wilson has been receiving O’Brien and Raymond’s support since 2008 even before they formalized their philanthropic efforts into a foundation, and has been receiving guidance from Turk as she prepares to head to Loyola University in Chicago.
“Soledad is like a second mom to me,” said the aspiring FBI agent who spent two weeks on vacation in the Big Apple this summer at O’Brien’s apartment. Reflecting on how she was able to go to the high school of her choice and now the college of her choice because of the foundation, Wilson added, “It has made all the difference in the world in my life.”