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Oprah Winfrey Works to Break the Poverty Cycle Through Education

“Charity isn’t even charity for me because it is an extension of who I am,” says Oprah Winfrey.

Winfrey has donated over $350 million to various causes, but admits when she first achieved financial success, she had difficulty deciding what to give and to whom. “I tried working with kids who were disabled, I tried working with kids who were juvenile delinquents, I tried working with elderly people — that didn’t work for me,” she says.

It was a trip to South Africa in 2000 that inspired her to build a school for girls, the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy, which opened in 2007. This year, she’ll attend the graduation of the fifth class, thanks to her contribution of over $100 million through the academy’s foundation, which continues to support them after graduation.

Pamela Littky for Variety

“I specifically chose girls because giving an opportunity to a girl means that she doesn’t just change her life,” says Winfrey. “The nature of women is to nurture so they nurture their families, they nurture their communities. I say to my girls, ‘You are going to have the chance to break the cycle of poverty in your family forever.’”

All the graduates of OWLA have gone on to college, either in South Africa or in the U.S. Education matters, says Winfrey, “because it’s an open door to a real life, and you can’t get through this life without it and succeed. It’s an open door to discovery and wonder and fascination and figuring out who you are, why you’re here, and what you came to do. It’s an invitation to life, and it feeds you forever.”

Pamela Littky for Variety

She calls all of her graduates her “daughters,” saying she now realizes this was always fated. “If I had my own children,” she says, “I probably would never have done this.”

She’s gotten an education of her own, too, along the way. “We’re all trying to be here on the planet and fulfill what it is our heart wants to express,” she says. “When you can figure out a thing that connects with you, there really isn’t anything better. I feel expanded because of the work that I do that’s called charity.”

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