The Ebersol family

The Ebersols' Inspiration
In November 2004, television executive Dick Ebersol, his wife, actress Susan Saint James, and their children suffered a tragic loss. Teddy, the youngest member of their family, died in a plane crash. Dick and his other son Charlie, who were also on the plane, barely escaped with their lives. On a previous Oprah show, the Ebersol family shared the life lessons they learned from their grief.

The Ebersols said Teddy's untimely death taught them how to celebrate life, and now, the family shares how losing Teddy brought new meaning to a special family project. The project, a documentary film called Ithuteng, tells the story of an extraordinary South African woman and the children who call her "Mama Jackey."
Mama Jackey and Ithuteng Trust students

Since she opened her school, Ithuteng Trust, in 1997, Jacqueline Maarohanye—known to her students as Mama Jackey—has helped and inspired more than 6,000 children in the township of Soweto. Many of Soweto's children become victims of violent crime at an early age. For many of these forgotten youth, Mama Jackey's school is the only safe haven from rapists, gang members and murderers.

According to the Ebersols' research, Ithuteng Trust is the only school in Africa with a 100 percent graduation rate. Nelson Mandela has called Mama Jackey the "angel of Soweto."

Charlie Ebersol was the first to meet Mama Jackey and her students when he visited South Africa during his junior year of college. He promised them that he would return to tell their stories through film.
Kip, Charlie and Lebo

Lebo's story was one of many told in the documentary Ithuteng. After being gang raped, Lebo became pregnant and HIV positive. For years, she sought refuge at Mama Jackey's school, and after the documentary was shot, Lebo died of AIDS.

Rape victims like Lebo and victims of other violent crimes are taught radical coping methods at Mama Jackey's school. The students learn to act out traumatic events in their lives through dramatic reenactments. Victor, a teen with a violent past, must reenact a childhood filled with drugs and guns. Mama Jackey says her methods help children find closure.

Tough love is another important part of the program. Mama Jackey insists that all her students—some of whom are reformed criminals—experience life inside a maximum security prison.

In this school, rape victims and rapists live under one roof and learn from each other. Every male student takes a pledge when they arrive at Mama Jackey's school...they vow to never again harm children or women.
Kip, Willie and Charlie

After making his promise to Mama Jackey and her students, Charlie brought his friend Kip on board to help produce the film. They then recruited Charlie's 16-year-old brother, Willie—who had shot a few films in high school—to direct the documentary. Documenting Mama Jackey's inspirational story and her students' struggles was truly a family affair for the Ebersols. Dick financed Ithuteng, while Susan acted as assistant editor.

Charlie, Kip and Willie raised enough money to pay for their plane tickets to South Africa and left for a 17-day film shoot.

When they arrived at Mama Jackey's school, Willie says the enormity of the project began to sink in. "It never really set in until we got to that school and realized that our cameras weren't charged and our lights weren't ready...and all of a sudden we were making this movie," he remembers.
Charlie Ebersol

When the young filmmakers returned home with hours and hours of unedited footage, Charlie called on his mom's friend, Gayle King, for advice. Gayle, who also happens to be Oprah's best friend, watched a rough cut of Ithuteng and offered Charlie some valuable tips.

Finally, Ithuteng was ready, and Gayle passed Mama Jackey's story on to Oprah. After seeing the film, Oprah decided she needed to meet Mama Jackey in person.
Young rape victim

While Oprah was in South Africa overseeing construction of her own school, she made a special trip to Soweto to meet Mama Jackey and speak with some of her students.

The girls Oprah met shared heartbreaking stories of rape and incest. One of Mama Jackey's students told Oprah she was raped by her father when she was only 15 years old. Another girl says that her brother raped her when she was 5 years old. Both girls believe that they are to blame for their sexual assaults. "This is not your fault," Oprah assures the girls.

Then, Oprah offers words of hope. "You can take that pain, and you can turn it into power," she tells one young victim. "You can be one of the most powerful girls Africa has ever known because of your pain."
The Ebersol family, Kip and Oprah

While many of Mama Jackey's students have experienced unimaginable pain, they have also found great power through the recovery process.

"They use [pain] as fuel," Kip says. "They used what they went through as their inspiration—as what gave them their strength. Sharing that struggle together is what brought them sort of joy...and it was what helped them move forward."

By sharing personal struggles with their classmates, many of Mama Jackey's students are able to move on and mend their spirits. Oprah says she's still amazed how African children can live through such painful experiences and "still have a vibrancy and a love and a spirit that transcends all of that."

"A determined fight," Charlie says. "That's what we called it."
The Ebersol family and Kip

After producing this powerful documentary about forgotten children and dealing with the death of his younger brother, Charlie says he's learned to be thankful for every day that he talks to his mom and dad. Now, he says he knows the value of "absolute love."

After the crash that killed Teddy, Charlie says he won't go a day without telling his family, "I love you." This, he says, Mama Jackey taught him. "She says to [her students], 'You tell each other you love each other—and you believe it.' It's not just words. It's this sense of community that has to happen."

Ithuteng is scheduled to air on HBO this fall.