Helping Children, Changing the World
Podcast #58 — Aired April 9, 2015

When you help a child, you can change the world. This week on BetterWorldians Radio, we’re talking with Hollywood filmmaker Peter Samuelson who is making a big difference in the lives of children in need. Samuelson will discuss how his experience as a filmmaker gave him the skills to make a real impact in the lives of children around the world by founding charities such as Starlight Children’s Foundation, First Star, and Everyone Deserves a Roof (EDAR). Samuelson will share some of his success stories, like enlisting the support of heavy hitters Steven Spielberg and General Norman Schwarzkopf, and will tell listeners how they, too, can help make the world a better place.

 

 

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Peter Samuelson
Founder, Starlight Children's Foundation
Founder, First Star

Peter Samuelson is 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. In 2005, Starlight merged with Starbright World, an online social network for seriously ill children (also founded by Samuelson) to become the Starlight Children’s Foundation. Starlight has raised over $1 billion and served 60 million seriously ill children. In 1999, Peter founded First Star, a separate national charity that works to improve the public health, safety, and family life of America’s abused and neglected children. In 2008, Peter founded Everyone Deserves A Roof to distribute a mobile single-user homeless shelter on wheels. Peter is a graduate of Cambridge University and producer of dozens of Hollywood films including Revenge of the Nerds and Arlington Road.

Episode Transcript

Raymond Hansell
This week on BetterWorldians Radio we're talking with filmmaker and serial social entrepreneur, Peter Samuelson. In 1983 inspired by a little boy battling an inoperable brain tumor, Peter created Starlight Children's Foundation, an international charity dedicated to granting wishes for seriously ill children. In 2005, Starlight merged with Starbright World, an online social network for seriously ill children which Samuelson also founded to become the Starlight Children's Foundation. Starlight has so far raised over one billion dollars and served over 60 million seriously ill children. In 1999, Peter founded First Star, a separate national charity that works to improve the public health, safety and family life of America's abused and neglected children. And in 2008, Peter founded Everyone Deserves a Roof, EDAR, to distribute a mobile single-user homeless shelter on wheels for the homeless. Peter is a graduate of Cambridge University and producer of designs of Hollywood films including Revenge of the Nerds and Arlington Road. Peter, thank you so much for joining us today on BetterWorldians Radio.

Peter Samuelson
Very happy to be with you.

Raymond Hansell
It's a pleasure to have you onboard. We've been researching your work and we're excited about the show today. It seems to start out with your career in the film industry to begin with. A very impressive resume producing many Hollywood films. Tell our listeners about some of that.

Peter Samuelson
I think it actually started a little earlier than that. I think of life as having day to day events and then every so often there's a big pivot where you go off with a tangent because of something that happens. So the first pivot for me would be in 11th grade back in England I had an English teacher, Mr. Lund, David Lund, that I would never have used his surname back then. He said to me in 11th grade you know Samuelson, if you worked about twice as hard I think you could get into Cambridge University. I laughed at him and I said Mr. Lund, its a joke. No one in my family has ever been to a university or a college. My dad left school at 15. I think that's ridiculous. And David Lund said well if no one in your family has ever been before you well then I guess you'd be the first and that'd be special wouldn't it. So to cut a long story short, I did what he said. He tutored me and I got myself some scholarship into Cambridge. And the thing about Oxford and Cambridge in the UK is that rather cleverly they don't let you go straight from high school into college. They make you take a gap year. It's mandatory. You find out in roughly January that you got in and about your scholarship and so forth but you can't actually go until October of the same year so there's this ten month hole in your life which needs filling. What happened to me is I had really better than schoolboy French. I had spent some time in France. I'd become pretty fluent and I met an American producer just by happenstance and he said to me so how good is your French. I told him I think it's pretty good. He said is it as good as your English? I lied a little bit and said yes. He said well that's wonderful because I'm going over to make a film about motor racing with the American star Steve McQueen in Remon (Ph) and I need someone who can speak French so why don't you come with. So I was 18 years old. I went. What I hadn't told him was that primarily my French was Medieval French because that's what I had been studying in the end of high school so I found myself suddenly completely fish out of water, very nerdy, studious kid suddenly surrounded by motor racing drivers and Hollywood filmmakers and sort of bemused French villagers. And I had ten months on the Steve McQueen motor racing film Remon. After that ended, literally the next day I drove back to London, through London to Cambridge and found myself suddenly thrust into being an undergraduate, wearing an academic gown in all the hours of daylight bicycling wearing the academic gown. I used to have to say grace in Latin before meals at High Table which is one of the ways you earned your scholarship. And I did the Cambridge thing but what I did to earn pocket money because the scholarship didn't pay for any of that was I would do interpreting primarily for motion picture people who would come over from America and I would find myself in Morocco or France using my French. At the end of Cambridge I got my bachelors. I got my masters and looked around and said there appears to be no work at all in the UK for someone with a master's in English literature. But all these wonderful Americans were saying you should be in Los Angeles and come over and we'll give you work and so forth and so I did. In my early 20s I found myself in Los Angeles not really knowing anyone but I worked and worked and worked and worked my way up the ladder from production management, the nuts and bolts of making a film to packaging films and then in the late 70s I partnered with Donald Sutherland and he and I made if it was a Canadian tax shelter film. There were really only three Canadian actors that anyone had ever heard of internationally. There was Donald. There was Margot Kidder and there was Donald Pleasence. So in the heyday of Canadian tax shelter where you had to earn your six points by hiring Canadians, Donald was very important good actor and a lot of tax shelter films got made. So the first film I produced was called A Man, A Woman and A Bank, which was literally the second film ever made in the city of Vancouver Canada. And then Donald and I parted company. I cofounded a company called Interscope with another producer called Ted Field. Ted Field financed the company. We made Revenge of the Nerds, Turk 182 and a whole bunch of other films. And then I moved on again. I partnered for a while with my brother Mark who is the brother who didn't leave London, one of the two still there. And we made really two kinds of films. We made American studio films like Arlington Road with Tim Robbins and Jeff Bridges. And we made British high quality sometimes award winning art house movies like Tom and Viv which got two academy award nominations. The Story of Oscar Wild with Vanessa Redgrave and so forth. So after 25 years, 25 films, some made money, some didn't make money but that's my film background.

Raymond Hansell
Okay now let's skip ahead a little bit. You had an epic moment, a real sort of jolting moment when you were inspired by a little boy that was battling a brain tumor that unfortunately took his life and it inspired you to begin Starlight Children's Foundation. Can you tell us a story about the Starlight Children's Foundation beginning and how it was in the beginning?

Peter Samuelson
Well my cousin had met this little boy who was seriously ill in the children's hospital in London. It's called Great Ormond Street and he was 11 and his name was Sean Homeraty (Ph). And she had asked him Sean, what would make you happy and Sean said I want to go to Disneyland which is pretty shocking concept because here was a little boy who was really in a very bad way and he was definitely rooted to a hospital bed by all his pipes and tubes and all the rest of it. But the doctor said there is no downside here. Sean is terminally ill. If you think you can get him to Los Angeles, you should talk to his mother. And the mother, Brenda, said we would love to come to Los Angeles. And so the other thing about being a film producer is you're supposed to not ever take no for an answer and you always are supposed to be able to work out how to execute on an idea. You're frequently doing impossible things as a film producer so I just sort of laterally transferred that. Couldn't get them into a hotel so they came and stayed with the cousin in my apartment on Wilshire Boulevard (Ph) in Los Angeles. For two weeks we did all the stuff that you're not supposed to do I'm sure with a seriously terminally ill child. He went on the beach. He went to Disneyland. He went up in the helicopter. All sorts of good fun stuff. The epiphany because again I do think life has tipping points. You have day to day events and then every so often you have something that's a big shock, a revelation that pivots you towards a new tangent. Sean having a wonderful time wasn't the pivot. Sean going home and even Sean passing away was not the tipping point. The tipping point for me was that a few weeks after Sean had died I had a business lunch with a commissioning editor at HBO, a man called Steven Yolarky (Ph) and I pitched him some dam project. I can't remember what it was and he passed. Halfway through the lunch he said tell me what else is new and exciting. I told him the story of Sean and Steven Yolarky cried at the business lunch table. It was a big sort of fright and a shock. We men are not very well trained in what you do when another man cries. Do you hug him? Do you pat him on the back? Do you shake hands? Who knows. But it was a big shock to my system because I realized what impact the story of Sean had. Another thing you learn as a film producer, you're constantly pitching things. Some pitches work and some pitches don't work but your pitch is defined as you're describing something that doesn't exist as though it did exist. So you learn how to tell a story. I realized that I just made a grown man in a suit and tie cry so I scratched my head a few days and then I called a meeting after work one night and I just sort of told the story again to a dozen or so people. That was functionally the first meeting of the Starlight Children's Foundation because everybody said yes, let's see whether we can do more wish granting, more psychosocial services to seriously ill children. Why wouldn't we do that? It would be splendid. From little acorns great big oak trees grow and Starlight has now four dozen offices, and it's in seven countries, and its raised a billion dollars, and it serves six million families a year and so on and so forth but it all started actually in that room.

Raymond Hansell
So that was the pivot. Another pivot I think our listeners would be very interested in finding out more about is your getting Steven Spielberg and eventually actually General Norman Schwarzkopf onboard when you were shifting from the Starlight to the Starbright so tell us a little about that story.

Peter Samuelson
Well, it seemed to me that what we had in Starlight sort of eight years in was an enormous network of audiovisual hardware where one of the things we did was to show video cassettes as it was then and the Disney Channel and so forth in children's hospitals. We'd invented these things called Starlight rooms which were sort of an audiovisual safe place where nothing painful could happen and where kids went for distracted entertainment on the ward floor. And then we realized some of the kids couldn't get out of bed so we had invented a kind of trolley originally called Starlight Express and the trolley was the bottom half of the thing that you'd normally eat your lunch on that they roll over and under the bed but the top part of it was a kind of box with all the audiovisual equipment in it and not too many controls on the outside for the kids to muck up the vertical hold or whatever. So what we were doing was simply buying off the shelf software videos and so forth and games for the kids to play and I said to -- I got myself a meeting with Steven. He didn't know me really from Adam but one of the great things of America is you can get to meet anybody. You just sort call the assistant and hopefully polite and you eventually get in. I was told I had 15 minutes and please be very focused and don't give collateral material to Mr. Spielberg. Leave that out here. So I find myself in there and I'm saying to him we have all this hardware in children's hospitals. Maybe what we could do would be to create software. Why wouldn't we make a game for diabetic kids where the more they balance their insulin and food and sleep and exercise and so forth the higher they'll score? Or why couldn't we do a video that would help asthmatic kids, encourage them that it was cool to use their inhaler. That kind of thing. Steven said well of course we should do this, but in addition this was 1992 I guess, Steven said you know there's this new thing called the internet. Actually we could do it and deliver it to kids in hospitals around the world as easily as we could do it in one hospital. So that sounded pretty good and I'm looking at my watch and it's 40 minutes and 90 minutes and more than two hours and I'm thinking I wonder what happened to his next meeting. We're talking on and on and on and at the end of the meeting Steven says well this is splendid. Let's just do it. What do you want me to do? I said you be the Chairman. It's a new non-profit. I thought okay the children's rhyme was where we got the name Starlight. Starlight Starbright, first star I see tonight. So I thought okay we'll call this one Starbright so it became the Starbright World Network. As I was leaving Steven's office he said if I'm going to be the Chair I should donate some money. I said well that would be great. He said what do you think I should donate? I said honestly I don't think I was put on the earth to tell Steven Spielberg what he should give to charity. Steven said well you can't leave unless you give me a number. I said no I'm not going to give you a number. He said you have to give me a number. I can always say no. And so I had no idea where this number came from. It like fell from the sky into my head. I sort of had an out of body experience where I saw myself and heard myself telling Steven Spielberg 2.5 million dollars. I saw his mouth say okay. I can do that. And I found myself outside ambling on the Universal lot and I actually hid behind a tree and I called my wife and I said to Sal I'm not sure. I may have hallucinated this entire thing but I think there's a brand new charity. It's called Starbright and Steven Spielberg is the Chair and I think he just donated 2.5 million dollars. There was a silence and then my wife said do you think you're okay to drive? Maybe I should come and get you. So that was the beginning of my second non-profit Starbright.

Raymond Hansell
Starlight Starbright first star we see tonight. That's an amazing story. We have you to thank for that. We also have apparently Steven Spielberg participation as well. We're going to have to take a break right now but before we go I just want to take a moment to congratulate all the players in our social game on Facebook called A Better World for reaching our charity partner goal, the month in March. Because you completed 300,000 good deeds in the game this month we are releasing funds for Fran Drescher's Cancer Schmancer to provide cancer screenings to 25 women in need. So great work everybody. Keep it up BetterWorldians. We'll learn more about Starlight and Peter's other great works when we come back in just a moment.

Raymond Hansell
You're listening to BetterWorldians Radio. We're speaking with filmmaker social entrepreneur Peter Samuelson.

Gregory Hansell
Hi Peter, this is Greg.

Peter Samuelson
Good afternoon.

Gregory Hansell
So we were just talking about Starbright World and we were talking about how its the first ever private social network for teens with chronic and life threatening medical conditions. I know it was created in 1995 and that's well before Facebook and social networks as we know them today were invented. Tell us how it worked and what it looked like.

Peter Samuelson
Well from the very beginning when we turned it on at Digital World in June of 1995 Steven Spielberg, Norman Schwarzkopf, the late great general, and I pressed the green button. It's never been turned off since. Here we are 2015. It runs 24/7. It's moderated by a combination of Los Angeles and Australia so it's literally operated 24 hours a day. From the very beginning it had Avatars. It had navigation. It was before the mouse had been designed so the way that you moved your Avatar was with the up, down, left and right keys. You could choose your Avatar from a huge number of Avatars. Steven's Avatar when he would go on the game to play with the kids was always ET. He was the only one allowed to be ET. And when two Avatars bumped their heads it would open up video chat. Remember this was 1995 and you could be a kid in a hospital in San Francisco and you were suddenly seeing and being seen by and having a conversation audibly with a kid in, I don't know, somewhere in New York. So it was a real phenomenon. I mean when we put this in, it was the very earliest stage of the internet. We actually had to have Sprint donated the long lines but the last few yards from the Sprint cable into a hospital they would have to dig a trench to actually lay a cable with the correct bandwidth. It was way earlier than this kind of audiovisual interactivity. I think in many ways Facebook is not as good now technologically as what we had in 1995.

Gregory Hansell
Yah, it sounds very advanced. I remember back in 1994, 1995 I was logging into text only bulletin board systems so for the time that's incredible. So I was wondering if you could tell us how that social network, how Starbright World evolved in the year since then?

Peter Samuelson
Well obviously the internet caught up and its now carried on an internet backbone and also another big change is that we made it possible as the revolution in medicine actually reduced the number of days that your average seriously ill youth finds themselves in a hospital bed it's become much more of a kind of outpatient environment in pediatric medicine, thank God. So we made it possible for the kids to use Starbright World from home as well as from the hospital so it's greatly broadened and we've added many more locations from which you can access it.

Gregory Hansell
Very cool. So what was the feedback like from the caretakers in the medical community?

Peter Samuelson
Well this was really an extraordinary uplift. When we started with both Starlight and Starbright, there was no such thing as what is now the serious well-researched medical field of psychoneural immunology, or bluntly the relationship between mental health and physiological, body health. What we now know is that when someone has a good positive mental attitude their T-cell count is higher and when they are depressed their T-cell count is lower. Not only that, someone with low T-cell count becomes depressed very often and vice versa so the whole thing is a circle. We didn't know anything about that. We just thought it might be a really spiffy idea to make kids happy when they were seriously ill. But we would start noticing when we would intervene in their lives through Starlight and then later through Starbright World we would have situations where we'd say Timmy you can't go to Disney World because Dr. Smith thinks that you couldn't handle the flight so let's talk about a different wish. Every so often Timmy would say I don't want the other wish. I want to go to Disney World and we'd say well if your T-cell count comes up then you will, and we would watch as miraculously the kids T-cell count rose which made the trip possible. We began to realize and then a flood of serious medical research was done around Starlight and Starbright interventions which actually showed that not in all cases but especially in cases where immunological response was what the doctors wanted to help the patient the Starlight or Starbright touchy feely intervention would suddenly be taken very, very seriously and we would see as is now the case that very frequently it's the medical staff, the doctors, who reach out and say come and help this kid because we think what you're offering is what they need.

Gregory Hansell
Yah, I think that's so fascinating and so important. Its similar to the positive psychology research out there that shows that connection between doing good and feeling good. It's amazing that it also affects ones biology and not just their state of mind. It's actually something similar to what we do with A Better World. So I was interested about hearing how Starlight and Starbright merged and what that organization looks like today.

Peter Samuelson
Well what it looks like today is a highly professional four dozen or so offices around the world, headquarters in Los Angeles, Century City. It's very professionally staffed. We work through some chapters, some affiliates and also offices. It's a full array of psychosocial services both online and offline. It's a site option. It's also the hole gamete of online services because one thing about seriously ill children, they're all millennial which means they're all digital which means that actually they know more about the digital realm than their parents and grandparents generations so a lot of what we offer leverages off of that various digital platforms but we also do high touch stuff in hospital face-to-face.

Gregory Hansell
Well that's amazing work and I love what you're doing with kids. Let's switch gears though and talk about First Star which is a charity dedicated to improving life for child victims of abuse and neglect. So first, what inspired you to found First Star?

Peter Samuelson
Two documents in 1999. I realized that Starlight and Starbright were stable growing healthy and happy. I was looking for a new challenge because as a film producer I think your training is in starting things and executing on them and making them take wing. You're the one who gets the kid on the two wheel bicycle, takes off the training wheels, keeps your hand on the back and then there's that wonderful day where your kid says don't let go dad. Don't let go and your kid is 100 feet away pedaling on the two wheel bicycle and you're just standing there saying no don't worry. I won't let go but they're now pedaling on their own and they've found their balance. I sort of think that is my role in these organizations is making them happen. Ideas are a dime a dozen. Mostly the good ideas are not mine. First Star started with two documents. Somebody gave me the UN Convention on the rights of the child which is a 25 year old UN Convention. It says that children shouldn't be slaves, and they should have a name, and they shouldn't join the Army until they're 18, and they're entitled to education and healthcare, and the purpose of the punishment of children is rehabilitative and not just punitive and on and on and on. You read this thing and you think well yah, that's kind of self-evident truth. I agree with all of that. And then in the appendix it tells you that there are 179 nations in the United Nations General Assembly and 177 of the 179 have ratified the treaty and that two have not. One of them is Somalia where there's no one there to sign. The other one is the United States of America. I thought that was absurd. I've never met an American who didn't like children and I couldn't understand how could we not have signed this thing. Then I read another UN document, the UNICEF Biennial Survey of the First World where they measured the 23 richest nations in the world by the welfare of their children. We're number 22. One from dead last and I couldn't put it together in my head. So back in 1998/99 I did a year of research where everywhere I flew in the film business I would try and go through Washington DC and meet everyone that would meet with me, which was pretty much everybody. I came to the conclusion, everybody wanted to do a better job but the better job wasn't happening. The deficit was a complicated thing but mostly what was missing was new thinking and leadership. I determined that the worst of the worst of the worst of the worst was the situation of the 400,000 kids in America who are foster children. From zero to age 18 these are children who have been removed for good reason from their birth parents who were either molesting them or beating them or burning them with cigarettes or something quite dreadful and they've had to be taken care of by strangers until of course they turn 18 or in some places 21 at which point they're told have a nice life. Here's your stuff in the black plastic trash bag. Happy birthday. The outcomes from foster care in America are disgusting. They are disgraceful. Within two years of aging out of foster care, 2/3 of the boys are in prison, 1/3 of the girls are in prison. There is an absolute symmetrical revolving door between child prostitution and girls in group foster homes where they're supposed to be kept safe. Of 102 prostituted underage girls discovered by the FBI last year in Los Angeles County, 74 of them had been recruited by the pimps out of group foster homes.

Gregory Hansell
Unbelievable.

Peter Samuelson
In these group homes there are a few that are okay but in most of them you have strong gang influence. You have staff on three eight-hour shifts and the whole thing is dreadful. So coming up to 35,000 feet I said well if it's so dreadful why can't we do it better. I realized several driving reasons: 2,200 different jurisdictions. Not a whole lot of coordination between them let alone raise your ships with the rising tides. You have to believe that any American company with 2,200 offices or depos or stores whether its Starbucks or FedEx or 7-11 they sit there every Monday morning deducing best practice by looking at the comparisons. We absolutely do not do that for foster care across the country. Also there's a pervasive 100 year old sense of shame and therefore secrecy that hangs over the whole thing and actually most of what goes on is never in the newspaper. It's never on the 11:00 news. There are little tips of the iceberg that you see a child died or whatever it may be but it takes great tragedy whereas the running misery of it is very, very lacking in visibility nationally. So I said well what are we going to do. So the first thing we started in 1999, I called the charity that I cofounded with Sherry Quirk, I called it First Star primarily because I couldn't think of a better name and I thought okay Starlight Starbright, first star would be next. So we called it First Star. We opened an office in Washington DC and another one in Los Angeles and what we did and we continue doing is a top down policy systemic reform effort by giving school grades by jurisdiction. The ones we give the F to it drives them insane and it's all over the newspapers and they then seek to emulate the ones that got the A- that's up the road. We help them to do that with model legislation and all that kind of thing by different measures of how they are running their foster care system. But then there's a whole new grassroots part of First Star which started four years ago where like most of the good ideas in my life it wasn't mine. One of our Board members, Kathy Reardon phoned me early one morning and said you know how everybody says that the most difficult kids to place with families are the teenagers for foster care. If you have an eight year old little girl with pigtails you can absolutely get her a family but if you have a six foot one 16 year old boy, you can't get him a family. He's going to end up in institutional care and we all know how dire the outcomes are. So she said to me, I've had this thought of where we could put teenage foster kids in the high school years that might be really good to educate them and encourage them and teach them life skills and so forth. I said well where would you put them Kathleen? She said well just hypothetically what would you have if you put them in the middle of the campus of a four-year university? I was absolutely stunned. I suppose this was an epiphany. This was a tipping point for me. I said to her first of all I don't believe it's never been done. Surely in a big world someone must have had that thought before you so we got two grad students. We paid them a little bit of money. They came back a month later and said no, we don't think anybody has ever done this, not in Europe, not in North America, and not in the Far East, Australia and New Zealand. We think it's never been done. So I said well hypothetically, think of what you would have if you had 14-18 year old 9th through 12th grade foster kids living some of the time and spending a whole lot of time on a university campus. The first thing you'd have would be all the role models. You'd have 20,000 undergraduate and grad students some of them even ex-foster youth who clawed their way in and what you could do is to use them as the peer mentors and they would encourage the kids and that might just be splendid. And then all the experts that you would need, think of it. You need psychiatrists, psychologists. We have schools of that on our campus. You need some social workers. We have a school of social work. You need some educators. We have a school of graduate education and so on and so forth. So Kathleen unfortunately became very ill and moved to Rhode Island and I said well let me see. I'm supposed to be good at standing up ideas. Let me see what I can do. So I got a meeting with the chancellor of UCLA. He had no idea why I was meeting with him. I pitched him the idea. He said have you read me ten year plan? I said no, I'm ashamed. Of course you have a ten year plan. I just never thought to read it. He said I'll only read you two sentences. He takes it out and he read. One sentence said UCLA as a taxpayer funded and supported university will strive in every way possible to build affirmative pathways to post-secondary education for youth from families none of whose other members have previously had that advantage. He points at me and says that's check one for your idea. He runs his finger down and he says UCLA will strive to be the most excellent academic neighbor to the surrounding communities of Los Angeles, lifting up its neighbor's lives in every way possible using its prodigious academic and other skills. He points his finger at me and says that's check two for you. So he and Vice Chancellor Janina Montero and I just sort of shook hands and said we must pilot this. So we went to DCFS. We said we'd like to interview 100 8th grade open case file foster kids, foster children, foster youth and they said okay. We didn't really know what to ask of them. We knew we shouldn't look at their grades because if they were especially in institutional care or with foster parents who themselves left school at 14, no one ever made them do homework and they're at low performing schools. What we did is to have them write an essay; 300 words with the essay prompt being, again not my idea, Wally Capital's (Ph) idea. He was our first year director. Please imagine that it is your 100th birthday party and your best friend who is known you your whole life makes a toast. What would you like them to say about you? We just kind of looked for any spark of ambition, frustration, maybe my future isn't my past, maybe I could be someone, maybe I have hopes and dreams. We recruited 30 of the youth. We moved them on campus. The way it works is they live on campus for a month each summer and they come back at least monthly as day visitors the rest of the year. It's a four-year program and it's actually very good timing that we're talking now because I can tell you four years later here is what we are in the First Star Academy's. First of all we have seven academies. We're at UCLA, our original one, and then we added University of Rhode Island in Kingston Rhode Island and then the Storrs campus at the University of Connecticut, George Washington University in the District of Columbia, Rowan University in South New Jersey, the University of Central Florida in Orlando, and Loyola University in Chicago. We will be opening at Rutgers on the three campuses early next year. Pepperdine they're adding in Los Angeles. There's about another 20 universities in different stages of developing the program but more importantly than where we are, let me tell you the national stat. You remember me saying earlier 3% of American foster youth get a bachelor's degree. Of our 12th graders nationally 48% so far have at least one offer of a place in a four year university to get a bachelors. We think another 44% will go to community college and some of them will transfer over for their junior and senior years in a four year university. And then 8% will go straight out into the workplace. So it is a mind boggling transformational very big deal in foster care. Running marines around it, if we can get much more than half of foster youth educated to a bachelors and if they then become middle class taxpaying productive health family raising grown-ups, adults, we then change this whole generational repetition of abuse, neglect, poverty which runs down whole communities and whole family lines if there's no intervention. Education is how you do it. We think the First Star Academy's as we now replicate them nationally and internationally, I'm talking to people in London and also in Toronto Canada so I think we might have our first oversees or at least foreign affiliates pretty soon. I think it turns the whole foster care system on its head and creates vastly better and more cost effective outcomes than this dreadful incarceration, gang, substance abuse, low achievement, indigenous, homelessness outcome which is otherwise the norm.

Raymond Hansell
It's an amazing breakout. We can't wait to hear some more about what's going on. We're going to have to take another short break but when we return we'll talk more with some of the challenges facing foster children today and how you can help. If you're a fan of the BetterWorldians Radio, you should probably also check out our social enterprise A Better World whose mission is to make uplifting games and apps to brighten the world. Everything that we do is about doing good, having fun, changing the world so we're committed to creating awesome digital products designed with a purpose of making a difference through optimism, altruism and charity. So far over 25 million good deeds have been done in A Better World by more than 2.7 million people. You can join in and find out more at ABetterWorld.com. We'll be right back. (Music)

Raymond Hansell
We're back now with filmmaker and social entrepreneur Peter Samuelson. Now let's welcome back Peter and MarySue.

MarySue Hansell
Hi Peter.

Peter Samuelson
Hello there. Happy to be with you again.

MarySue Hansell
Yes, thank you. You teach a course for foster children called Random Acts of Kindness and Pay it Forward. You had an interesting story about a lesson that you gave each kid. Was it $200 to donate? Tell us about that story. I thought it was really interesting.

Peter Samuelson
It's not necessarily intuitive for a foster kid to be altruistic. Altruism is perhaps something that's difficult when you yourself are hungry, needy, you need an extra pair of shoes yourself. But I think it's how we become better humans so the course I teach we start off talking about if Darwin was right and if it's just a dog eat dog world in the survival of the fittest why would anybody ever do a generous thing. Why would someone passing a homeless person sleeping on the sidewalk quietly go after the $5 bill under their arm and never say a word. So we talk about the golden rule which there's almost 200 religions in the world. Every single one of them in their scripture somewhere has the concept of social justice, of equity, of moral equity but when we see something that seems out of whack, unfair, we seek because we're human and it's a human instinct to try to make the world a better place. And then we talk about what if you were relentlessly atheistic. What if you don't want to do it because your god suggested it? We talk about the second law of thermodynamics and the scientific concept that in any closed system whether its a garden, an electric engine, an ecosystem or a planet if you don't apply external energy it turns to random chaos. It's theoretical entropy. So we talk about that you have to apply the energy in order to keep civilization whole and thriving. And then we through the generosity of our anonymous donor who lives in Dallas Texas we then give each of the youth the right to give away $200, and they write an essay who they want to give it to. Jose's essay said I'm adding $10 of my own because that makes 210. I'm going to give it to the animal shelter because it's $70 so they don't euthanize a dog and I'm going to save three dogs because the last time I was down there I looked in the eyes of a puppy that had been badly beaten and I saw my own eyes because I was beaten as well and so I'm saving three dogs. It really works. It makes the kids proud. It makes them feel like greater human beings. It makes them feel as though they're more in control of their universe and it gives them self-esteem and it makes them realize no matter how bad things may be there is always someone worse off than you.

MarySue Hansell
Yah, hi Peter. I know we only have one more minute left and I wanted to ask you this very important question. How do you hope the work that you're doing in all those wonderful programs is helping to make the world a better place? If you can give us your best answer in a minute or minute and a half will be great.

Peter Samuelson
The great Jewish rabbi Maimonides talks about the human soul having three levels. The highest one which not everyone has is called the Neshama. The Neshama is a kind of membership society of those who seek to make the world a better place. What he says is that when two people who are members of the Neshama meet they feel as though they have known each other a thousand years and they say Himame (Ph), here I am, and they seek to work together to improve the world. The greatest joys and the greatest relationships that I have been privileged to have in my life are explained by the Neshama. I do believe that life is fragile but civilization is fragile and I think it is the moral obligation of all of us to try and fix it and make it better wherever we can. I'm privileged to have done some of that with some of the greatest people in the world and it's like a membership society. It's an army of those who define the purpose of their own being existentially if you like as being to lift up those around us. A man never stands so tall as when he stoops to hold the hand of a child in need. I think that's the truth.

Raymond Hansell
And that is the truth and I think that's what we try to embody here at BetterWorldians. For our listeners you can find out more about Peter Samuelson's wonderful work by going to Starlight.org, FirstStar.org and EDAR.org. Peter, I'd like to thank you very, very much for joining us today on BetterWorldians. You're doing the work of a BetterWorldian probably as much as we've seen on the show the entire time that we've been broadcasting. Thank you very much for joining us.

Peter Samuelson
Thank you for the opportunity.

Raymond Hansell
You're very welcome. As we end our show each week we like to share our BetterWorldians mission here. We strive to make the world a better place by encouraging the very best in everyone. We focus on positive thinking, positive values and positive actions. In short, our vision is to bring out the BetterWorldians in everyone so that we can all make it a better world. Until next time, everyone please be a BetterWorldian. (Music)