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The Starfish Model

"Operation Starfish"

Excerpt from Crime and Community in the Cape Fear: A Prosecutor’s Guide to a Healthier Hometown

by Benjamin R. David

The parable of the starfish is one you have likely heard. A wise old man is walking along the beach when he comes across a young child looking for starfish that have washed ashore with the tide and are now slowly cooking to death under the glowing sun. “What are you doing?” the old man asks the busy boy. “I am saving starfish,” answers the boy. “But look down the beach,” says the elder. “The tide has receded, there are dozens of them, and time is running out. You cannot possibly make a difference.” Without looking up, the young boy picks up another starfish and, throwing it into the water, says to the old man, “It made a difference to that one.”


My children and I frequently go to Wrightsville Beach to unwind after a big week of school and court. When considering the outreach efforts that prevent crime and the way to structure the work we do here in this community, I came up with the starfish as an analogy to organize my thoughts.

The Starfish Model represents our outreach efforts and a way to give people a sense of belonging in the community. These five arms are: Government, Schools, Business, Non-profits, and Faith organizations. Holding it all together at the center of the starfish is Health. This includes physical health and mental health to be sure, but also healthy relationships and a healthy lifestyle. I rarely see healthy people in the criminal justice system. Many defendants are weighed down by drug dependencies, behavioral disorders, and severely dysfunctional relationships. The same root causes that contribute to poor health and overrun the hospital also wash up on the courthouse steps.

One characteristic of a starfish is worth mentioning. When an arm breaks off, a starfish will regenerate the lost appendage. Communities that are broken can still fix themselves. People who have been traumatized can be resilient and not let the crime define their lives. As we think about the prevention efforts, the parable of the starfish reminds us that while murder, rape, and armed robbery existed 100 years ago and will exist 100 years from now, it is also true that current efforts can make a huge difference right now. We might not save everyone, but we can save one.

Please visit the links below to learn more about some of our Starfish efforts, or watch Ben's TedxAirlie talk from March 2019. 


Each year, Ben speaks with students at every middle and high school in New Hanover and Pender County to address issues such as bullying, internet safety, personal responsibility, and making good choices.


Internet Safety Contract

Safer Schools Task Force

Teen Court


Ben is a founding member of the Blue Ribbon Commission on the Prevention of Youth Violence, now called Voyage Wilmington. The BRC was formed in 2008 as an initiative under the United Way of the Cape Fear Area as a response to the prevalent violence among youth in the North side of downtown Wilmington at the time.


- Greater Wilmington Business Journal Power Breakfast, December 2013

- In 2015, Ben teamed up with Chip Mahan, Chairman & CEO of Live Oak Bank, along with the United Way of the Cape Fear Area, to found Hometown Hires. The program was created to help individuals at or below poverty-level to find jobs that help transition them back into the workplace, through partnerships with local employers working to help break the cycle of generational poverty in our community. Hometown Hires then merged with Phoenix Employment Ministry to become Phoenix Hometown Hires, and is now known as Step Up WilmingtonWe encourage you to watch the Hometown Hires video on our Community Engagement page or read this article to learn more.

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