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Anchor touts mentors at lunch

 (The Spokesman-Review)
O'Brien (The Spokesman-Review)

As a CNN reporter and anchor, Soledad O’Brien has covered some of the world’s biggest stories and has won some of journalism’s most coveted awards.

But, as she told the 2,000 donors at the Women Helping Women Fund luncheon in Spokane on Monday, there is one fact about her that always generates the biggest response:

She is the mother of four children, all younger than 6 – including 2-year-old twin boys.

“When you’re a mother, you don’t give up your life,” O’Brien said shortly before her keynote talk.

Over the past 15 years, the Women Helping Women Fund has raised about $3 million in donations to programs benefiting women and children throughout Spokane County. O’Brien is the latest in a list of big-name speakers, which has included Gloria Steinem, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, Ellen Goodman and Madame Jehan Sadat.

The more than $200,000 donated at this year’s luncheon will support 24 community programs, including crisis intervention training at the Vanessa Behan Crisis Nursery, maternity support services at Holy Family Hospital, women’s programs at the Institute for Extended Learning, and a mentoring program in which high schoolers work with elementary students, among many others.

During her speech, O’Brien stressed the importance of mentoring.

“I view all of my mentors as my board of directors,” O’Brien said.

She credited her mother with teaching her the most about life, but she said she routinely picks up wisdom from the people she encounters in her reporting each day, including the survivors of Hurricane Katrina and the tsunami in Thailand, as well as those fighting in Iraq.

“If I ever forget, my job often reminds me … of how lucky I am,” she said.

O’Brien came to CNN in 2003, when she was hired as co-anchor of the network’s morning program. Last month, though, it was announced that O’Brien would leave that post to become an anchor and special correspondent for CNN. She now works largely on hourlong documentaries for CNN: Special Investigations Unit.

“I love it,” she said before her speech, adding that she’s currently working on six different documentaries. “I’m a big believer in ‘change is good.’ “

Before joining CNN, O’Brien hosted NBC’s Weekend Today show for several years. But getting a start in TV news was not easy for the Harvard graduate, she told the crowd at the Spokane Convention Center.

One station manager told O’Brien, whose mother is a black Cuban and whose father is a white Australian, that she was too light-skinned to fill the station’s one minority slot. The next executive suggested she change her name to something less ethnic-sounding.

“Even as a light-skinned black girl with a strange name, I managed to succeed anyway,” she said.

But, O’Brien told the group, she learned from her mentors – especially her mother – not to give up, to stick with something if you feel strongly enough about it. And that’s what she did.

Now, she is involved in a variety of charities to help others who need a hand up, she said.

“When we invest in women, we all reap the benefits,” she said.

And at the end of her speech, she did just that. She handed over a $1,000 donation to the Women Helping Women Fund.