First Star was founded in 1999 in the United States as a national 501(c)(3) public charity dedicated to improving life for child victims of abuse and neglect. Since 2011 First Star has pioneered support programmes to launch foster children into productive lives and careers through higher education. In 2017 First Star opened its first academy outside the USA – in London. St Mary’s University, Twickenham became the pilot UK Academy and welcomed students in the summer of 2017. In late 2017 First Star Academies UK was established to take forward the programme in the UK. While an independent organisation focused on Looked-after Children in the UK, First Star Academies UK works closely with its sister organisations in the USA.
First Star improves the lives of Looked-after Children and Young People by partnering with virtual school heads, schools and designated teachers, social services and carers, universities, and local authorities to ensure looked-after young people have the academic, life skills, and adult support needed to successfully transition to higher education and adulthood. We pursue our mission through innovative university-preparatory programmes, providing professional assistance to stakeholders, and advocating for policy change.
First Star’s Co-Founder and President, Peter Samuelson, is an educator, media executive and film producer, and founder of www.starlight.org , www.edar.org, and www.aspirelab.org as well as www.firststar.org. and www.firststaruk.org
First Star Academies UK Chair and Founder
Dr Lorna Goodwin
Director of St Mary’s First Star Academy
Peter Samuelson, Founder and Chair
Peter Samuelson is a media executive and serial pro-social entrepreneur. In 1999 his strong passion for children’s advocacy led him to co-found First Star, a DC based nonprofit dedicated to improving the lives of America’s abused and neglected children. In 1982, Peter co-founded the Starlight Children’s Foundation—an international charity dedicated to granting wishes for seriously ill children. In 1990 Peter founded with Steven Spielberg and General Norman Schwarzkopf Starbright World, an online social network to educate, encourage and empower children to cope with the medical, emotional and social challenges of their illness. In 2006, Peter founded EDAR, “Everyone Deserves A Roof” to develop and widely distribute through established service agencies a mobile single-user homeless shelter on wheels. In 2014, Peter founded www.aspirelab.org to teach media for social justice to undergraduates, piloted at UCLA. Peter has produced two dozen motion pictures including Revenge of the Nerds, Wilde and Arlington Road. Peter is a graduate of the Anderson School of Business at UCLA, and also has a Masters Degree from Cambridge University, England.
Read here about Peter Samuelson’s relentless efforts to pilot the First Star Academy model.
Dr Lorna Goodwin, Executive Director
Lorna has been involved in the university sector in the UK for over 22 years. Prior to joining First Star Academies UK full time, Lorna worked at St Mary’s University as the Academic Director for Enterprise and Development in the School of Education. With the impetus of Peter, and with the support of both Vice Chancellor and Pro Vice Chancellor and Heads of Services at St Mary’s, Lorna set up the First Star Academy and acted as interim director until Nick was appointed. Lorna has previously been involved in the local nonprofit community, co-founding and running Special Olympics Richmond.
Lorna started her career as a PE teacher, running a successful department in a large state comprehensive school. After completing her Master’s in Educational Management at Southampton University Lorna moved to the higher education sector as senior lecturer. Since gaining her Ph.D. from Surrey University in Inclusive Education, Lorna has run international training events, presented papers and run symposiums on inclusive education and special educational needs and disabilities in the USA, China, Brazil, South Africa, the Middle East and Europe. As trustee of a local Multi-Academy Trust, Chair of Governors at a local special school and serving on the local London borough schools’ forum representing the voice of special education in the borough. Lorna continues to be highly active in local education provision.
The Meaning of Life (the real one, not Monty Python) Thoughts on First Star at Age Seventeen
Dear Friend of First Star;
I apologize in advance for the possibility that you will find this maudlin or overblown. But isn’t one of the defining features of an alert life in its third act, surely to look back, then look forward, and to ask what this is all for. I have, and I continue to do so… and First Star seems to invariably grant me the prism towards truth.
One of the lessons we try to teach our teenage foster youth in the First Star Academies, street hardened though most are, is that it is OK for men to cry, and that from time to time they should allow life to give them the excuse. There is a course I’ve taught at two of our First Star Academies, called “Random Acts Of Kindness and Pay it Forwards.” For our foster kids aged 14 to 18. For kids to whom life has dealt a raw deal. To youth, some with their toes sticking out the front of their shoes, who have been abused or neglected, to these innocent victims of life. I try to teach them that giving is the highest and noblest instinct of a human being, that it lifts us up, and that beyond anything else, it makes the world revolve every day.
I start by asking the class why, if Darwin was right, and if the world is a ruthless jungle where only the fittest survive, anyone would ever be kind. Why ever would a person pass a homeless man or woman sleeping on the sidewalk, and quietly slip a five dollar bill under their arm? Why do we feel moved to help those less fortunate, often anonymously and with zero personal benefit? We go on to define and discuss the Golden Rule, the sense of equity, of balance, of social and personal justice, that exists in the scriptures of every single religion of the 170 in the world. And we ask, “But is it only religious?” and we parse the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which tells us that in any closed system, whether it is an engine, a garden, a family, a city or a planet, if external energy is not applied, entropy drives the system over time to random chaos : the engine seizes up if you don’t oil it, the garden is full of weeds, the family implodes, the city is over-run with crime, and life on the planet dies out.
Generosity, I discover, is not initially discernible in the soul of every single 14 year old foster youth. If you get raped, beaten, starved and ignored enough, your thoughts do not automatically go to “How can I help others around me?” But the core instinct is there, and at the end of the first semester, we have a competition where the students compete to help others. It gets to the point where nobody can do anything for themselves… it becomes a funny, happy shared humane experience in communal self-support.
The second semester, we introduce a shocking concept. We tell each student that one of our donors has anonymously put up some money, and thus each of them now has the ability to give away $200. There are rules: you can’t give it to yourself. A cannot give it to B and then B gives it back to A. It is supervised, tight and the ethics are pretty clear. It starts with as written proposal by each student. Many are remarkable explorations of what really matters in a life. Jimmy wrote, “I am adding ten dollars of my own, because that makes $210. It takes $70 at the Pound to stop them killing a stray dog. And I am going to save three dogs. Because the last time I was there, I looked into the eyes of a puppy that had been badly beaten and I saw my own eyes, because I was beaten too.”
And our stubborn, wonderful Karl wrote “I’m giving $200 to this Academy, because after I was expelled, I was given a second chance and let back in, and nobody ever gave me a second chance before that.” And we said no, that Karl had personal benefit from his proposal. It did not meet the rules. And so he rewrote it and said “The rules will not allow me to give the $200 to the UCLA First Star Academy. So I am giving it to the University of Rhode Island First Star Academy.” And we send the check to URI, and the thirty students there each wrote Karl a thank you note. And by the way, Karl is our male Class President, and his ambition after earning his Bachelors is to become an officer in the Marines, and teach Kinesiology and Athletic Conditioning. Karl’s Mom has been in a coma since she gave birth to him 17 years ago.
A few months ago, we had our Christmas Party on Westwood Boulevard in a donated swanky restaurant. Afterwards, our 50 kids, their Peer Counselors and the rest of us stood on the sidewalk and waited for the vans to return the students to their Placements. And the head waiter came out, and asked, “What do you want us to do with all the cupcakes left over?” And I said, “Put them in boxes and give them to the kids.” And he did.
Five minutes later, out of the corner of my eye, I saw Sam, one of our most troubled students, walking away from the group. All on his own, he walked up to a homeless man sitting a hundred yards away on the sidewalk. He smiled at him, and gave him his box with the muffin. And then he walked back and never said a word to anyone. I was so overcome by emotion that I had to take a little walk of my own.
And that, my dears, is the closest I can get to telling you the Meaning of Life. And if not every life, then for sure mine. You raise your kids, by a miracle they turn out fine, you love your wife and friends, you do random acts of kindness, and then you die. That’s the best deal we can get, and it’s pretty wonderful.
Rabbi Maimonides wrote a thousand years ago about the human soul having three layers. Everybody has the first two. But not everyone has the top one, the N’Shuma, and in fact nobody owns a N’Shuma of their own. Instead , it is like a membership society. A club of those who give a damn about the world. A society of the enablers, the helpers, the people who try to heal the world and make life better. And Maimonides says that when two people who belong to the N’Shuma meet, they feel as though they have known each other for a thousand years. They say “Hineini. Here I am” and they help each other and share great opportunities to heal our world.
I think that’s me, I think it is what I am called to do, and I do believe it is the Meaning of Life. Or at least, the meaning of my life. Hineini
How to Contact First Star
Contact Executive Director – Dr Lorna Goodwin