A few weeks after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast, Soledad O'Brien got a call from a friend about Alexia Wilson, a bright eighth grader from New Orleans. The city's public school system was in chaos, but she'd landed a spot at a pricey private academy—one she couldn't afford. Moved by the teen's story, O'Brien and her investment banker husband, Brad Raymond, took a chance, and began setting aside some of O'Brien's paychecks to pay Wilson's tuition. "We'd always donated to charity, but the chance to help Alexia tapped into my belief in the power of education," O'Brien says. "My mother had emigrated from Cuba, where people lost everything under Castro, and she'd always say education was one thing no one could take away."
Over the past six years, O'Brien and Raymond have given seven girls in New York, California, Florida, and Louisiana the opportunity to attend the high school or college of their choice. The couple connect with students through referrals or—as was the case with their second scholar, Nya Buckley—happenstance. O'Brien met the 18-year-old single mom while filming CNN's Black in America
in 2008. "Nya was brilliant and engaging, but she wasn't in school because she couldn't afford daycare for her son," O'Brien says. "We paid for that; now she's a successful college junior, and her son is doing well in school."
With the creation of the Soledad O'Brien & Brad Raymond Foundation
this year, the couple's personal giving has gone public. The organization's first event, a jazz concert held in the Hamptons in August, raised around $300,000, which O'Brien calls "a very nice beginning." She and Raymond will continue to pay the program's administrative expenses so all donations can go directly toward the girls' education. Already, she says, "we're making very substantive impacts without much money."
While O'Brien hopes to extend the foundation's reach, she plans to cap the group at about 25 young women. "Right now I can call my girls anytime and talk to them about life," she says. "I want to keep it that way."
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