Building a Dream
At 52, Oprah feels her most important work has just begun. The Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls—South Africa is an innovative high school whose aim is to discover, teach and inspire young South African girls to become a new generation of leaders. It is the first of several she hopes to build in struggling communities on every continent. She's looking for brave girls, children who have already conquered adversity with a feeling of "I can!" That dream began for her a long time ago.
The idea of a school strikes the deepest chord in Oprah. "My own success has come from a strong background in reading and learning. The greatest gift you can give is the gift of learning." And so began her quest for special girls who want to learn, "bright-eyed wonders who have struggled in life," Oprah calls them. "I want somebody who already knows that education is empowerment, and who wouldn't have had the chance to fulfill the great possibilities of her life had this not happened. I want to change the trajectory of a child's life."
Creating this school has not been easy, logistically or socially. From the beginning, she struggled to explain her vision, a school that could "contain the emotional, spiritual selves of the girls." Because these girls come from poverty, she was first given designs she felt looked like a chicken coop, then a barracks. Planners advised that these African children were not accustomed to much—many sleep on dirt floors in housing with no water or electricity; some share a bed with relatives. Oprah was told that the simplest environment would be a luxury to them, that they would need only basics. She sent the plans back. "I said, from the start, I am creating everything in this school that I would have wanted for myself—so the girls will have the absolute best that my imagination can offer." In 2002, she announced her plans to build a leadership academy and donated $10 million for the school. Her donation has grown into more than $40 million.
This is a school built with love. There is a path called Street of Living to the dormitories, and another, Street of Learning, to the classrooms, symbolizing the merging of life lessons and academic study. "You can't avoid passing the library," Gayle says, who accompanies Oprah on a tour of the campus. With Oprah's deep love of books, she has created the library she wished for as a girl, arranging plush seating around a welcoming fireplace, "so the girls can read by the fire and spend time there with their friends."
Every classroom has an outdoor teaching space, sometimes a garden. A leafy tree shading cool benches provides a place where Oprah imagines a girl can "sit with a book or be with [her]self." Amid these soulful elements, the school will offer state-of-the-art technology, a gym, and, at Oprah's insistence, a magnificent amphitheater, "for expression, art, poetry reading, and oratory." Great leaders need to be great orators.
Every tile, door handle and finish has been Oprah's particular choice. In the dormitories, each with its own small kitchen and terrace, Oprah's touches abound. She has chosen white sheets, towels for their softness, pillowcases bearing an embroidered O, and the colors for the bathroom tiles—orange, green and happy yellow. The girls will sleep two to a room, each with her own spacious closet and desk. Hearing at the preliminary interview rounds that each girl will have her own bed, some of the candidates leapt with joy. "My own bed! That will be like heaven!" one cried.
Oprah sits down on a bed. "It's everything I asked for," she says quietly. She smoothes the sheet, as if readying it for her special girl. "They are my daughters now," she says.
These young faces exude hope, possibility, promise. "Yesterday I asked an 11-year-old, 'Why do you want to come to this school?' and she said, 'It is my tomorrow!' They are already wonderful. They are my dream girls."
"Why do you want to come to my school?" Some see themselves as financial burdens on their families. For others, it's a dream for the future. "I have these things inside me and I want to let them out! And I want to help others let them out!" says one.
"Who do you live with?" Oprah asks each girl. Often the list fails to include a parent; instead it is a grandfather, an aunt, a cousin. Many have lost a parent to AIDS, some have been raped, others abandoned. "Where is your mother?" Oprah asks one girl. "Nobody knows, ma'am." Oprah continues, "That must be very hard for you?" The girl looks away, and then with unflinching resolve says, "Yes, but I have to be strong for my small brothers." Oprah has found a brave and brilliant girl, ready for a miracle.
Probing, she asks about favorite subjects. What do they want to do with their lives? They light up: mathematics, social work, languages, forensics, they say. They dream of becoming astronauts, chartered accountants, teachers. One tells Oprah she wants to be a "special doctor," caring for AIDS victims. "There are so many dying in my community. I need to help them." And they all want to help others fulfill their dreams. "I want to be inspired!" one declares.
Oprah remains intensely focused in this once-in-a-lifetime conversation with each girl. She wants to strike a balance: She is drawn to girls bursting with charisma, the "it factor," and to others for their quietude and depth. "Do you have lots of friends?" she asks. "My whole school loves me!" one girl says cheerfully. "Wherever I go, they follow me!" And another shyly admits to having only one friend. "It's good to have one special friend," says Oprah. Two sisters recently orphaned after family violence express concern in their separate interviews that only one might be chosen. "I would worry so much about my sister," says the younger girl, "I'd be always thinking, Where is she, is she all right, has she eaten today?"
"What's the greatest moment of your life so far?" Oprah asks. "Being here now, with you," the girls say. They are in this room because they possess a will to succeed despite terrible odds. Poised beyond their years, graceful, sweet, giggly and bursting to live a dream unthinkable only one generation ago. Some might call them lucky; others would suggest that they are a classic example of "preparation meeting opportunity."
It will be difficult to make the final choices. "Really hard!" Oprah says. "But we're creating a model, only 15 girls in a classroom, where each child will have attention." Her requirements are stringent: No pregnancies, no drugs or alcohol; hair must be short or neatly braided. Her hopes are high: The charter group will be made up of 7th and 8th graders, who will become the first two graduating classes. By then the school will have a student body of approximately 450. Trained in decision making, critical and expansive thinking, social responsibility and the rewards of giving back to one's own community, they will be prepared to lead in the quest for peace, progress, and prosperity in South Africa and the world.
That lesson is Oprah's own credo: "Trust your instincts. Honor your own truth. Discern it, know it and follow it. Is it right for me? That's my great business lesson." She'll be teaching the girls by satellite from Chicago, and sometimes in person, joining a staff of the finest teachers she can gather.
For those who are chosen, move-in day at the school will no doubt astound the girls and their families. "I want their parents to know they can trust me with their girls," she says. The thought of that day intensely affects her. Tears stream down her cheeks, perhaps a remnant of grief over her own early struggles, certainly hope for the future of these children: "It's the first time in my life that I've said I feel proud of myself." Turning to go, she says, "It has been a great day...a great day!"