Five years ago, Oprah Winfrey handpicked 72 underprivileged girls from South African shantytowns and gave them the opportunity to leave their homes for a higher education.
She built a school, Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls and five years later; after implementing the idea inspired by Nelson Mandela, the girls are in American colleges.
The 58-year-old mogul is not a mother herself, but thanks to the first graduates of the school, she says she now ‘gets it’. She said she has been able to experience all the ups and downs of motherhood and feels fulfilled that she made a point of donating her time and energy, not just money, to the cause.
Oprah said there were times she thought about giving them the money and stepping aside for them to run the project without her, but now she’s glad she didn’t. She says she didn’t really know that she would love it so much.
While travelling back and forth to South Africa, she developed meaningful relationships with the girls, and was now facing something akin to Empty Nest syndrome, watching them get ready for college life.
“We’re texting all the time, I was on the phone last night for an hour with one of them.
I will tell you what has brought me the greatest happiness – being able to step into the mother role and be a real mother, friend, companion, advisor and comforter to these girls has added another level to my life that really just came as a surprise to me.
I knew from the moment that I met these girls that I was going to fall in love with them, and I did,’ she said. ‘When you change a girl’s life, you change not just her — you change the whole family.”
There was a crisis that happened shortly after the school opened in the small town outside of Johannesburg. Virigina Tiny Makopo, a school matron, was charged with sexually molesting several girls.
Ms Winfrey flew to South Africa to personally apologise to the students and their families in 2007, and fired the school’s headmistress, Lerato Nomvuyo Mzamane.
According to Forbes, Winfrey has devoted $400million to the girls’ education in the U.S. and abroad, building a school in Meyerton, South Africa.
Her journey is chronicled in a two-hour documentary called, The First Graduating Class: Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls, which will air on the OWN, Sunday at 11pm ET.
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