Shining star

Starlight Starbright Children’s Foundation names CEO.

By Ret Boney

LOS ANGELES  [08.06.04] — Paula Van Ness signed up for duty at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Indianapolis the day after she met the age requirement to become a candy striper.

That began a life of service that has included helping found the National AIDS Fund, leading the National Alliance to End Homelessness and running the Make-A-Wish Foundation of America.

“I have always found that the work that I’ve done has been uplifting,” says Van Ness. “Even when you’re working in the middle of a crisis like the AIDS crisis, the generous ways people reach out to each other is very inspiring.”

Van Ness now has been tapped to lead the newly merged Starlight Starbright Children’s Foundation, an international charity in Los Angeles that provides products, services and programming to children with chronic, serious or life-threatening illnesses or debilitating injuries.

The foundation, with 25 central-office staffers and 90 more in its 14 chapters throughout the U.S. and abroad, serves over 2 million children and their families a year with services that include rolling entertainment centers and computers for use at hospital bedsides, “kid friendly oases” within hospitals that provide a haven for children and their families, parties and events, and online communities for kids, teens and their families.

The foundation also provides computer software and online programs designed to help children and families better understand the conditions they face and the associated challenges.

“What I love about it is there’s an array of products and services for children,” Van Ness says.  “Kids need to be kids.  Play is important whether they’re sick or healthy.”

Paula Van Ness

Job President and CEO, Starlight Starbright Children’s Foundation, Los Angeles

Born:  1951, Marion, Ind.

Education:  B.A., child development and family relations, University of Arizona; M.S., human resources and organizational development, University of San Francisco

Family:  Daughter, age 15

Hobbies:  Spending time with daughter, reading, writing a novel with friends across the U.S.

Currently reading “Standing at the Crossroads:  Next Steps for High-Achieving Women” by Marian N. Ruderman and Patricia J. Ohlott; “The First 90 Days:  Critical Success Strategies for New Leaders at All Levels” by Michael Watkins

Inspiration:  Her childhood church “where service was an absolute expectation in life.”

Currently under development is a series of “webisodes” designed to help kids cope with chemotherapy, a program to help preschoolers deal with pain, and programs that address eating disorders and the prevention of childhood obesity, says Van Ness.

“My job is to take the organization to the next level,” she says.  “I’ll be very disappointed if we don’t find a way to double the number of kids we touch in the next five years.  That’s my personal goal.”

About 22 years ago, producer Peter Samuelson, whose movies include Arlington Road and Revenge of the Nerds, responded to a child in need by granting a wish for that child, which led to the development of the Starlight Children’s Foundation in 1983.

In 1990, he teamed up with producer and director Stephen Spielberg to start the Starbright Foundation, which produced software programs and harnessed the power of the Internet to help children and their families better understand and live with their illnesses or injuries through avenues like online communities.

The two groups merged in July and will have a combined budget about $30 million this year, Van Ness says.

Van Ness, who grew up in Indianapolis, says she discovered she could make a career in the nonprofit world while in college.

“One of the things I love about the nonprofit sector is that we very consciously reach out to people we don’t know and may never meet and try to make their lives better,” she says.  “In the midst of all of that, there is reason to be hopeful and there is much to be thankful for.”

She began her career working on reproductive health and women’s issues at two Planned Parenthood affiliates, followed by a 12-year stint working with the AIDS crisis, helping found the National AIDS Fund, a philanthropic group dedicated to education and service, which she led for eight years.

She later served as president of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, and most recently spent six years as president and CEO of the Make-A-Wish Foundation of America, where annual revenue doubled to about $30 million during her tenure, she says.

“I want to make a difference in the world,” she says, “and I want to create meaning in my own life and in the lives of the people I touch.”

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