There was no single moment when Oprah Winfrey realized she wanted to give back to those less fortunate. The urge was always with her.
“I always knew because I was a girl that got saved,” says Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award honoree Winfrey. “I was saved by the kindness of people — some who knew me pretty well, others who didn’t know me at all. I’ve never forgotten how that made me feel as a human being.”
The multihyphenate, who founded the Oprah Winfrey Foundation, the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa and the now-shuttered Oprah’s Angel Network, recalls an adolescence filled with shame over her family’s poverty. As a 12-year-old living on welfare in rural Mississippi with her mother and half-brother and -sister, she witnessed the power of giving when a group of nuns visited her house on Christmas Eve, bearing gifts and essentials.
“It wasn’t about the toys or even about the food,” Winfrey says. “It was about not having to be ashamed.”
Years later, after achieving fame and fortune, Winfrey decided to emulate the nuns’ Christmas gesture. She assembled a team of 50 in the United States and another 50 in South Africa and went from village to village bringing toys and clothes and books to the locals.
“I thought the kids would be happiest over the toys, but they were happiest over the clothes,” she says. “I remember saying to one of the workers, ‘God, I can’t believe they’re more excited over these cheap little skirts and tops than soccer balls.’ And she said to me, ‘The clothes help reduce the shame.’ And I got it. I thought that was a full-circle moment.”
And though Winfrey is worth an estimated $2.7 billion, according to Forbes, she prefers tithing to paying taxes. So she isn’t jumping on billionaire Warren Buffett’s call for the rich to pay more taxes.
“I feel that I am taxed enough,” she says. “If you looked at my income and imagined half of that going to taxes, I think I’ve done my share. Every time I come in on the interstate, I thank myself for it.”
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