The idea grew out of a show we did around the holidays in 2006. Everyone in the audience was given $1,000, with a catch. They could spend it, but not on themselves—it had to go to a stranger. The results were delightful. Many audience members ended up doubling the money because once they spread the word, friends, neighbors, and local businesses wanted in on the giving as well; two sisters in Atlanta turned $2,000 into $200,000 and then gave it all away to a women's shelter. The whole audience got a great gift: the rush, the fun, the pure joy of giving.
It was my favorite giveaway ever. Better even than cars or houses.
So I thought, Let's do it weekly. I wanted to test my conviction that, when given the chance, people would continue to amaze themselves and feel an excitement unlike anything else. Thus Oprah's Big Give was born.
We searched the country for 10 contestants who all had different reasons for wanting to give big. Kim admitted that she had been selfish all her life; she felt it was time to turn things around. Carlana had gone from cheerleader to paraplegic after getting into a car with a drunk driver; she wanted to prove that not even a wheelchair could get in the way of giving. Rachael, a former gang member and sexual abuse survivor, was looking for a way to heal her wounds. Brandi, a 23-year-old, four-time pageant winner, wanted to show that you are never too young to be a big giver. We made it a contest to motivate everyone to do their best. As NFL star and Big Give judge Tony Gonzalez says, "Nothing inspires people like a little good, old-fashioned competition." None of the 10 contestants had any idea that at the end the Biggest Giver will be rewarded with $1 million. They gave it their all from their heart, not for a prize. Because of that, the results are pure.
Each week, they surprised themselves with just how big they could give—and how overwhelmingly great it could feel. There were so many amazing moments. AJ, a young widow and mother of two whose husband had been gunned down at work trying to save others, was overcome with grief and afraid of losing her home. I will never forget her look of relief and gratitude when contestants Stephen and Eric surprised her with the news that they had raised more than $100,000 in just five days, including school scholarships for her little girls. One of my favorite moments takes place in an episode that's scheduled to air in late March. A little boy named Manuel Zota Jr. watched in disbelief as a contestant (I don't want to give away the person's identity) paid for his father's much-needed car repairs. You can feel his awe and sheer amazement that a random stranger could be so kind without expecting anything in return. For me, that little boy's face is reason enough for the whole series. At age 10, he "got" it. The mechanics at the Midas shop thought it was a prank when that contestant came in to pay bills for strangers. You can see their faces soften as the truth of the moment sinks in. What those Midas guys did after our contestant left sums up Oprah's Big Give spirit to a tee. (You'll have to tune in to get the full story!)
It's hard to watch this series without thinking about what you would do in the same situation. How, and how much, would you give? That's the whole idea. The contestants and all the thousands of strangers they helped on their eight-week cross-country adventure say they will never be the same. They've been bitten by the gift of giving. One told me, "In the beginning, I joined this to win, and win I truly did. It had nothing to do with the competition—it was the best time of my life."
Giving always makes an impact and leaves a big imprint. I knew for sure that would happen.