First Star, a national non-profit, improves the lives of foster youth by partnering with child welfare agencies, universities, and school districts to ensure foster youth have the academic, life skills, and adult supports needed to transition to higher education and adulthood successfully. We pursue our mission through innovative, university-based college-preparatory programs, providing technical assistance to stakeholders, and advocating for policy change.
First Star was founded in 1999 by media executive Peter Samuelson and lawyer Sherry Quirk 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 programs to launch foster children into productive lives and careers through higher education. In 2016, the growth and diversity of First Star’s programs required two entities with separately focused governance, and the historical First Star policy work was transferred to First Star Institute. The amicable relationship between the two organizations builds on First Star’s success, and the two “sister” entities share a common lineage.
Directors and Officers
First Star President and Co-Founder
Lyndsey Collins MA
Chief Executive Officer
Chief Operating Officer
Director of Academy Engagement, East Coast
Director of Academy Engagement, West Coast
Development and Communications Officer
Expansion and Alumni Program Coordinator
Director First Star Academy at Illinois State University
Maria Pia De Castro
Director First Star University of Miami Academy
Director of Loyola of Chicago First Star Academy
Director of First Star UCLA Bruin Guardian Scholars Academy
Danielle Green Welch
Director, The First Star Kent State Academy
Alexa Hudson, MFA
Director, University of Utah First Star Academy
Director First Star Arizona State University Academy
Walter Kappeler & Julio Nieves
Directors of First Star South Jersey Collaborative Academies
Director, First Star Cal State San Bernardino Academy
Director of College of Staten Island First Star Academy
Linda Ram, MA
Director, First Star Academy California State University, Sacramento
Director of Central Florida First Star Academy
Peter Samuelson, President and Co-founder
Peter Samuelson is a producer, media executive, and has been described as a “serial pro-social entrepreneur”. In 1983, inspired by a little boy battling an inoperable brain tumor, Peter conceived of the Starlight Children’s Foundation—an international charity dedicated to granting wishes for seriously ill children www.starlight.org. Starlight has grown to offer eight core psycho-social programs, each restoring some of the laughter, happiness and self-esteem that serious illness takes away from kids and those who love them.
In 1995 Peter brought together leaders including Steven Spielberg and General Norman Schwarzkopf to create Starbright World www.starbrightworld.org , an online social network to educate, encourage and empower children to cope with the medical, emotional and social challenges of their illness. In 2005, Starlight and Starbright World merged, with offices today throughout Australia, Canada, The United Kingdom, Japan, Israel, and across the United States. Starlight now has a combined operating budget of $60 million and serves over 7 million children annually. Since inception, Starlight has raised and deployed internationally over $1 billion and served 70 million seriously ill children.
In 1999, Peter founded First Star, a separate national 501(c)(3) charity that works to improve the public health, safety, and family life of America’s abused and neglected children. With Peter as President, First Star provides “top-down” systemic leadership to provide quality and compassionate care for children within the child welfare system, basic civil and legal rights for every child and safe, stable and permanent homes for all children. First Star’s program to create 4 year residential programs for high school age Foster Youth on university campuses nationwide began at UCLA in 2011, and has thus far replicated to partner with and operate at thirteen U.S. universities, and a successful new pilot in the United Kingdom. In 2019, First Star launched a 5 year program to add a further ten First Star Academies at universities in California over five years, the first at Sacramento State University, sponsored by a specific initiative of Governor Gavin Newsom.
In 2008, Peter founded EDAR, “Everyone Deserves A Roof” www.EDAR.org to develop and widely distribute free, through established service agencies a mobile single-user homeless shelter on wheels. EDARs cost $500 each and hundreds of homeless clients use them nightly. Peter invented, and donated to EDAR, U.S. Patent No. 10,227,791 for the device.
Peter is a graduate of Cambridge University with a Masters in English Literature and the fourth of five family generations employed in the film industry. After serving as production manager on films such as The Return of the Pink Panther, he emigrated from England to Los Angeles and produced Revenge of the Nerds, Tom & Viv, Wilde, Arlington Road and 22 other films. Peter served on the founding Board of Participant Media Inc., Jeff Skoll’s pro-social media company. He founded ASPIRE, the Academy for Social Purpose in Responsible Education, whose undergraduate courses have been successfully piloted at UCLA www.aspirelab.org . Peter is a founding partner and CEO of PhilmCo Media llc, a triple-bottom-line motion picture and television company based in Los Angeles and New York.
Read here about Peter Samuelson’s relentless efforts to pilot the First Star Academy model.
Lyndsey Collins, Chief Executive Officer
Lyndsey Collins, MA, is the Chief Executive Officer of First Star, Inc. First Star, a national non-profit, improves the lives of foster youth by partnering with child welfare agencies, universities, and school districts to ensure foster youth have the academic, life skills, and adult supports needed to transition to higher education and adulthood successfully. We pursue our mission through innovative, university-based college-preparatory programs, providing technical assistance to stakeholders, and advocating for policy change. Lyndsey began her career with Teach For America as a science educator in Atlanta, GA, where she increased student achievement significantly and led several initiatives. These efforts resulted in Lyndsey earning the prestigious Atlanta Families Award for Excellence in Education. She has partnered closely with organizations such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the MLK Center in Atlanta, GA, and The Turner Foundation to positively impact the trajectory of students’ lives. Lyndsey served as a school leader for five years in Inglewood, CA, where she developed a robust leadership model used to support the growth of her middle school. She travels around the world, working with young people and adults supporting their learning and leading workshops in leadership and student achievement. Her travels have included Sarajevo, Bosnia; Oaxaca, MX; Santiago, Dominican Republic; and Hanover, South Africa. Lyndsey is affiliated with UCLA, Teach For America, the Foster Youth Education Fund, the Accrediting Commission for Schools, Western Association of Schools and Colleges, and Leadership for Educational Equity. Lyndsey attended Spelman College in Atlanta, GA.
Robin Winston, Chief Operating Officer
Robin has been involved in the local nonprofit community for over fifteen years. Prior to First Star, Robin worked with DoSomething.org as the Los Angeles Director where she oversaw expansion of the New York based teen social-action organization, and before that spent seven years as a senior associate at Levy Pazanti, an LA based event coordination firm that specialized in events in the non-profit sector. There, Robin spearheaded dozens of successful events for organizations such as the U.S. Fund for UNICEF, MOCA, Boys & Girls Clubs of America, Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, HRC, Sun Valley Writers’ Conference, Women in Film, Heal the Bay and First Star. A graduate of UCLA, Robin remains an active volunteer for many of the nonprofit organizations she worked with previously. Prior to working in the nonprofit field, she worked in the entertainment industry.
Brian Ritchey, Director of Academy Engagement, East Coast
Brian oversees the implementation of the First Star Foster Youth Academy model across the United States, as well as identifies and cultivates relationships with strategic partners to expand First Star Academies’ programming. Prior to joining the First Star National team, Brian was the First Star Academy Director at George Washington University in Washington, DC. There he was responsible for the development and implementation of diverse programming that fit the specific academic and psychosocial needs of the cohort of students. Brian has a background in Special Education as a high school teacher in Fairfax County Public Schools and an unyielding enthusiasm to be a positive influence on young people!
Janice Oyama, Director of Academy Engagement, West Coast
Janice serves on our team in the West Coast region by overseeing Academies, bringing together the communities surrounding them, and building strategic partnerships to further support our foster youth. She has been working with vulnerable populations for over a decade and has a background in behavioral therapy, crisis intervention, and case management. Prior to joining the First Star team, she worked in program development for children and families, and earned her certification as a professional leadership coach and in change management. These deepened Janice’s passion for developing others, strengthening collaborative partnerships, as well as advocating for positive change in underserved communities. She’s committed to fighting for social equity and values an innovative approach to her work.
Kathleen Kelly Reardon, Academy Originator/Co-Founder/Distinguished Fellow
Dr. Kathleen Kelley Reardon, Professor of Management and Organization in the University of Southern California Marshall School of Business, has served on the faculty of the MBA, Executive MBA, International MBA Programs and the faculty of Preventive Medicine. She is a leading authority on persuasion, politics in the workplace, negotiation, and interpersonal communication. She is the author of nine books and numerous articles published in communication and business journals, including three times in the Harvard Business Review. The Secret Handshake: Mastering the Politics of the Business Inner Circle, It’s All Politics, and Comebacks at Work (with Christopher Noblet) are her latest business books.
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
First Star is a 501(c)(3) public charity and relies on the generous support of individuals, corporations and private foundations. Download First Star’s most recent Form 990 filed with the Internal Revenue Service.