It's America's worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. Since the recession began in 2008, millions have been affected. Sudden layoffs, plummeting home prices and an unstable stock market have left many middle-class families struggling to make ends meet.
Some families are also fighting foreclosure and doing whatever it takes to keep roofs over their heads. Two such families are here today to share their stories with Oprah...but there's a catch.
These families were told they'd be meeting with a financial adviser, but they're really here to receive one of the biggest hookups in Harpo history from music superstar will.i.am!
John and Cheryl Eller, parents of eight children ages 20 to 8, say they're at the end of their rope. When they purchased their home in 2001, John says they could afford the payments. "I was making good money," he says. "I did my job."
After being laid off by his employer, John had to take a series of lower-paying jobs. Now, he says he's bringing home one third of what he used to make. "I went through my 401(k). I went through all my savings," he says. "I've been an executive in a major corporation, and I've also made doughnuts on a graveyard shift working in a bakery for $10 an hour. I've had to do whatever it takes."
Cheryl says she thought they'd live in their dream home forever, but unless they get help, they could lose their home in as little as two months. "There's just been a lot of life in these walls," she says. "To have to leave it all, it's going to be really hard."
If Cheryl and John's home is foreclosed, they'll face an even tougher challenge—keeping the family together. "My dream is to keep us all together, but with this sized family, it's tough to find someplace to rent," Cheryl says. "We'd have to split up."
Like the Eller family, Alycia Allgood and her daughter, Asia, are also facing foreclosure. For years, Alycia says she did everything right. When Asia was a child, she worked full time while going back to school to earn a master's degree, which helped her land a good job.
Alycia saved up and bought her first home. "This is the first thing I was able to do on my own," she says. "The proudest moment was sitting at that table for hours at a time signing my life away, and bringing my child here at 1 [year old] and giving her somewhere to grow up."
Then, like millions of Americans, Alycia says she lost her job when her company downsized. Since then, she's gone through her savings and fallen eight months behind on her mortgage. "Things have gotten very tough for me and Asia," she says. "Being a single parent, it's making it much harder taking away her home, her safe haven, because this is the only home she knows."
After sharing their stories, the Eller and Allgood families join Oprah onstage. Then, she fills them in on the secret she and her team have been keeping for weeks. "I want to just say that angels come in all forms, and everybody has one," she says. "Yours today is an angel who is a Grammy-winning superstar and the creative genius from the Black Eyed Peas...and actually one of my favorite people, will.i.am."
What these families don't know is, for the past few weeks, will.i.am and Oprah's team has been digging through their finances. They discovered that John and Cheryl owe more than $250,000 on their home, and Alycia owes about $100,000 on her home.
Since foreclosure is imminent, will.i.am is stepping in to help. "will.i.am is paying off both of your mortgages!" Oprah says. "You will own your homes free and clear."
This issue is personal for will.i.am, an artist who was raised in and around poverty.
"I remember when I was 11, I told my mom, 'One day I'm going to buy you a house.' And she said, 'Boy, don't you be making promises you can't keep.' I was like: 'No, Ma, it's not a promise. I'm going to buy you a house one day,'" he says. "I accomplished the dream, and then my next dream was I want to move my grandma and my aunt. So I was saving and waiting for the right time."
In March 2009, on will.i.am's birthday, he presented his grandmother with a new home in a safe neighborhood. "Now that I can take care of my family, I don't want to just stop with my own," he says. "I don't dream to be like mega crazy rich. I just want to be able to create, make music and help people when they need it."
will.i.am is using his own money to pay off the Ellers' and Allgoods' homes, but he doesn't want to stop there. Through his new i.am home fund, will.i.am hopes to raise enough money to save more people from foreclosure.
"If you bring people together who have big hearts and [are] caring, they can make a difference and help America's problem out," he says.