Hollywood and Wall Street came together to support the educational aspirations of several students, who needed a little financial boost to make their dreams come true. The Soledad O’Brien and Brad Raymond Foundation held its first official fundraiser in August in Bridgehampton, N.Y., bringing together actors such as Cicely Tyson, who stars in the blockbuster “The Help”; Melissa George; jazz master Ron Carter; TV personality Star Jones; media mogul Russell Simmons; and jazz musician Irvin Mayfield, who is the foundation’s board chairman. CNN journalist O’Brien held the event with her husband, Brad Raymond, at the private residence of one of the foundation’s board members. With 225 attendees, the foundation raised more than $220,000.
“One of the reasons to start a foundation is to make the kids understand you have a lot of really terrific opportunities,” says O’Brien, who has been informally funding the education of financially struggling students since 2005.
The foundation, which was established early this year, will be doling out grants to assist six deserving girls with college expenses. In the past, O’Brien has chosen the students personally by learning of them through friends or her reporting on Hurricane Katrina, education and other issues. However, now that she has launched a foundation, there will be a more formal selection process, says Rica Trigs, executive director of the organization. Students can find out more about the application process through the foundation’s Web site, http://obrienraymondfoundation.com.
“What has happened in the past is that the girls have actually found Soledad through her brand of stories,” says Trigs. This summer was not only the first time the foundation held an official fundraiser, but it was the first time grant recipients went on a “Summer Experience” where they met O’Brien, toured around their hometowns, and discussed their career goals. All of the girls are from New Orleans or New York City.
“We wanted to make sure that we didn’t turn this into just a scholarship,” says Trigs. “We wanted to be mentor-based, and we wanted to stay very individualized.”
Kim Bondy, a foundation board member who emceed the event, says the foundation hopes to eventually award no more than 20 scholarships per year. O’Brien is so hands-on with the girls that she has even given them her personal contact information.
“All of our girls call Soledad on the phone at least four times a year to say, ‘These are my grades for the semester, for the quarter. Here is where I am. This is what I plan,’” says Trigs.
Tierra Moore, a senior at the University of California, Los Angeles who has received $6,300 in scholarship funds from the foundation, attended the fundraising event, which was called “New Orleans in the Hamptons.” O’Brien, who is a Harvard University alum, has given her insight into going to law school there.
The foundation has not only provided Moore guidance and a financial boost, but it has given her the opportunity to study abroad. This summer, Moore studied in Paris thanks to a $3,000 grant from the organization.
Trigs says the organization will continue to afford students experiences that enhance their college careers as there will now be a protocol for extra-curricular requests.
“We’re going to really start to hone in on the programming just to make sure that all of the supports are in place as we take in new girls,” says Trigs.
Going forward, the foundation will be asking women in leadership positions from New Orleans or New York City to meet with the girls during their “Summer Experience,” even if the girls have to gather in a destination city. The organization also will help set students up with internships and establish a career network.
“We’re very involved in the summer months establishing internships,” says Trigs.
One of the scholars even shadowed O’Brien for an entire day, says Trigs. “It’s really based around her, and we’ve tapped into two other board members to really take on that [mentorship] role as we grow and expand.”
Moore, who was working two jobs to stay afloat and driving 70 miles one way to school, says the foundation has helped her focus on her studies.
O’Brien says the goal of her foundation is to help “shove” hard-working students like Moore across the finish line.
“I think what’s great about America is there are a lot of people willing to do the shoving,” O’Brien says.