Friday, August 25, 2006

Oprah's Leadership Academy

[old photo]

This article was posted today at Anderson Cooper 360 blog:

Why Oprah never had kids

SOWETO, South Africa -- "Hi Jeff," she said. "Glad you could make it. By the way, I watch you all the time."

These were the first words Oprah uttered to me as I held out my hand to greet her stepping off her van accompanied by her ever-efficient staff.

I was floored. Oprah knows who I am? I asked myself. And I had this whole introduction thing planned out. What a woman, disarming as ever, and ever the woman in charge. I liked her from the start, even more than I did watching her all these years on television.

We were in Soweto, a sprawling slum in Johannesburg, which actually stands for South West Township. Oprah seemed as comfortable here as she would be in a five star hotel. She walked right into the home of a couple of prospective students who had applied for entry into her exclusive Leadership Academy and had impressed her to the point she wanted to see where they lived and what their life was like.

As you can imagine, the two girls, cousins actually, were instant celebrities. "Oprah's come to our house," they kept saying. "Our friends will never believe us."

Their friends didn't need much convincing. Word in the townships spreads fast and even before Oprah had taken a tour of the two-room seven-person shack. Outside was like a market place with women ululating the famous freedom line of the 1980s, but with a new twist.

"Viva, Oprah Winfrey, Viva," one woman yelled followed by the chorus line "Viva" from the rest of the growing crowd.

"You've spent $40 million on the school so far," I began.

"$40 million and counting," she interrupted. "I think I'll stop at $50 million. You can build a good school for $50 million," she added.

Fifty-million dollars anywhere in the world is a lot of money. In South Africa, it's an almost unheard of amount, especially if it's being spent by one person for the benefit of others.

"The money means nothing to me," Oprah continued. "When I look at these girls, I see me. That's why I want to give them everything I didn't have growing up. These are the leaders of tomorrow's Africa."

The Leadership Academy, set on more than 50 acres of land just outside Johannesburg, is a site to behold. From the classrooms to the dormitories to the dining room to the library (complete with fireplace) to a 600-seat auditorium, where Oprah will be 'checking' up on her girls by video-conferencing, everything has been made to the highest standards.

"I want this school to be a reflection of me," she says. "I made a promise to Madiba and I intend to keep it." Madiba is the clan name given to former South African President Nelson Mandela. Back in 2002, Oprah asked Mandela what he wanted from her as a gift to the nation. He simply said, "Build me a school." And she did. School begins January 2, 2007.

It's Sunday afternoon and Oprah leaves for Chicago in a few hours. She's invited all 150 girls that have "made the grade" and will be attending her academy. The only thing is she hasn't told them this. She's invited them to an informal get-together. None of the girls suspect Oprah's up to her "old tricks." She springs the surprise.

"I called you all here today to let you know that you all be part of the first class of the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy," she said.

PANDEMONIUM.

The girls scream and shout for joy for a good 15 minutes. Their parents too are screaming and shouting. Everyone's crying, Oprah's crying, I'm crying. It's an unbelievable scene. Then Oprah opens up in a way that surprised even her best friend, Gayle King, who was present and is part of the academy.

"Some people ask me why I never had children," Oprah says, adding, "Maybe this is the reason. So I can help bring up other peoples' children, your children. I want you to trust me to bring up your children and I promise I'll never let you down."

This time there's not a dry eye in the room. I'm bawling by now and wiping away tears on my sleeve. "You're such a cry baby," Graham, my cameraman, says. "I can't help it," is all I can offer.

"What you did back there was simply amazing," I tell Oprah afterwards. "You'd have done the same thing, Jeff. Remember, I've seen your stories on CNN."

I'm fighting back tears again. "Hey, give me a hug," she says. "Today is a good day, and I feel my life has come full circle."

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