A Helping Hand: The Unique Mission of the Starfish Foundation
Erica Ramos aspired to become the first person in her family to graduate from high school and college. But finances were so tight that she could only afford to attend college every other semester, working full-time babysitting during her hiatus to pay for that next stretch of schooling.
“I felt very behind, and I questioned myself a lot,” said Ramos.
That all changed when she was introduced to the Starfish Foundation.
Founded by former NBC and CNN anchor Soledad O’Brien and her husband, Brad Raymond, the Starfish Foundation assists young women with the costs of schooling, helps them find jobs in their field and provides mentoring in the post-college years. The ultimate goal is to create women who are leaders in their communities and in turn give back to others.
The name of the foundation comes from an old tale in which a boy is walking on the beach just as the tide is going out. Starfish litter the sand, stranded by the receding water. The boy starts picking them up and throwing them back into the ocean one at a time. A man walks up and says, “This is a complete waste of your time. There are literally a million starfish.” The boy answers, “Well, it matters to this one,” and he tosses it in.
O’Brien and Raymond decided they wanted to provide meaningful help to individuals, even if they couldn’t save everyone. The couple came up with the idea for the foundation following Hurricane Katrina, when they saw money being given out but in small doses and with no additional support.
“We met a lot of students who would get a $5,000 check for college,” said O’Brien. “There was no way that was going to get them through college. It might help them defray some of the cost, but here were people who’d lost everything. Real help would be helping them underwrite college. Real help would be helping them to find people who would help them navigate college. Real help would be making sure that you help them in all the ways my parents helped me when I was going through college.”
With a motto of “Transforming Lives—One Girl at a Time,” the Starfish Foundation was born. It focuses on putting 25 women through college each year; young men might be added in the future.
After meeting O’Brien and learning of the mission, Erica was accepted as one of the first five women to benefit from the foundation. She began receiving financial support that allowed her to finally attend school full time.
“I had to be pinched a couple times because it didn’t seem real,” said Ramos. “It was a huge weight lifted off my shoulders. My mom is a single parent, and for the first time I could put all of my focus on school.” In fact, she made her first honor roll immediately after the foundation began helping her. In 2012, Ramos graduated from Boricua College in Brooklyn with a Bachelor of Science in education. She is now 30 years old and the deputy chief of staff for New York City Council member Ydanis Rodriguez, overseeing the office, managing the schedule and media requests and handling outreach to the community.
Erica feels the emotional support she has received over the years has been just as beneficial as the financial. She credits the foundation for assisting with career advice, mentoring and guidance, and she talks to O’Brien, Raymond and other leaders at least twice per week, calling them all her “guardian angels.” This type of wrap-around support is a critical part of the foundation.
“It’s such a joy to help people figure it out. Like all teenagers and early-20-year-olds, they really need [help] past college,” said O’Brien. “They really need help getting jobs and help in their jobs and help past the first few years of their jobs. And then they become able to help others. We’re taking an individual and helping her to get to and through college so that she is in a position to affect her community.”
Erica wouldn’t have it any other way. She’s paying it forward, advising other young women in the foundation. “I feel like I have to come full circle. It gives me a lot of personal growth to be that for someone else.”
If not for the foundation, Erica guesses she might have wound up in a lower-end job that didn’t feed her intellect and passions, and she’s not sure if she would have been able to complete her schooling. She looks back on the moment when she first entered the Starfish Foundation with a sense of awe.
“I guess everything happens for a reason. When you’re constantly encountering financial issues, personal issues, it feels like it’s almost impossible for you to grow and to continue to dream this dream. The beauty of where I am now is that I feel like I have endless opportunities, and the Erica 10 years ago didn’t really know that. The foundation has given me that encouragement to believe in myself. I feel like I owe my world to them. It’s too good to be true.”