In so many ways, the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls is a miracle of a school. Founded in 2007 by Winfrey to serve the needs of underprivileged girls living in nine provinces across South Africa, the boarding school has transformed the lives of hundreds of students in grades 8-12, providing them with the educational and emotional tools to realize their dreams of pursuing careers in such illustrious fields as medicine, public service and architecture.
“My hope was that I would give them an opportunity to see the best of themselves reflected through an open mind, an open heart, to what is possible,” says Winfrey. “And I can honestly say I have achieved that.”
Winfrey estimates she’s spent roughly $140 million to keep the Henley on Klip-based school, just outside Johannesburg, running. She pays for every sock, every uniform, every set of braces. This past year, one girl damaged her arm so badly in a car accident, she needed multiples surgeries. Winfrey paid for them all. When she visits, she spends at least a week on campus, conducting fireside chats with each student and teaching what she calls her Life Lessons 101 course. She is like a mother to these girls — they call her “Mama O.”
“She’s not just giving of her time, she’s giving of her talent,” says head of school Melvin King,. “She’s visible, she’s present, she is amongst the students. That is a very unique feature for any founder of a school to be so personally invested.”
The girls attending the school hail from impoverished communities in remote, rural areas. Many grew up in rondavels, thatch-roofed huts with walls made of mortar mixed with cow dung and sand.
Theirs is a patriarchal society, their role in the world devalued simply because they are female. Many of them are orphaned, having lost their parents to AIDS. They have suffered abuse — psychological and sexual — and in most cases have been raised by extended family members.
“When most girls come to my school they have suffered six major traumas on average,” says Winfrey. “They’ve lost one parent or both, been sexually abused, physically abused. This is a generation that lost their parents to AIDS. President [Thabo] Mbeki was in office and saying AIDS was not a real disease, and antiretroviral drugs were not provided. There was a time at the school during 2007, 2008, 2009, when we were losing a parent a week. Every week a child was being called in and we had to tell them, you lost your mom, you lost your dad.”
Too poor to afford any sort of tertiary education following high school, many of them didn’t even know what college was when Winfrey first met them.
Those same girls now attend top-tier universities such as Stanford, Skidmore, Brown, Oxford, USC, University of Cape Town and Varsity College. They’ve pursued post-doctorate degrees and secured prestigious jobs in major cities around the world.
“I had worked with other organizations, I had written lots of checks, I had started my own big sister program, where I was taking girls on skiing trips and spending time with them and reading. It doesn’t work,” says Winfrey. “What works is being able to change the trajectory of somebody’s life where you are literally brainwashing them for the good. Because what poverty does is brainwashes you to believe that you are not enough. So what our school does is work at creating a foundation of worthiness. It’s a patriarchal environment where they come from. Just being a girl makes you less than. I stand before them and tell them there is no bar, there is no ceiling. We’re not just going to crack the ceiling; it doesn’t exist.”
Winfrey doesn’t expect every student who leaves her school to become a government leader or president of a corporation. That’s not the most important thing, she says.
“I want you to be president of your own life,” she tells the girls. “You be the greatest CEO of your life that’s possible. Your happiness and your fulfillment is what makes you successful.”
Winfrey says her greatest gift is the relationships she’s forged with these girls, “the fierce love” that she has for them and the love they have for her.
Perhaps nothing better illustrates this love than a letter, sent to Winfrey from a student, thanking her for everything: “Where do I start Mama O? At 12, you saw in me what my country failed to see because I was a girl. You saw a future worth investing in and from there on we took off — internships, jobs, titles, tears, joy, mistakes, accolades, but through it all nothing but consistency and unconditional love from you. You promised me a change to my trajectory and I had no idea what I was signing up for. Ten years later now and I’m a proud graduate, with a job and apartment lined up. How do I even begin to thank you? Words, actions, accomplishments, can never express how grateful I am towards you, or even how much you mean to me. Thank you for everything, but even more so for believing in me even when my own didn’t. I love you and when I walk across that stage this is for us. We did it.”