Oprah Opens Her Dream School

HENLEY-ON-KLIP, South Africa ~ American talkshow host Oprah Winfrey opened a multimillion-dollar school for poor South African girls this week she has funded, saying it was the “proudest, greatest day of my life.”

Winfrey’s school was the culmination of a pledge she made to South Africa’s anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela six years ago, prompting the elder statesman to heap tributes on her at the glitzy opening attended by celebrities.

“We shared our conviction that the years of democracy would be nullified if we did not properly educate our youth. We hope that the school will become the dream of every young South African girl,” Mandela said.

“This is not a distant donation you made, but a project that clearly lies close to your heart. We salute you as a friend and a role model,” he said.

Winfrey fought back tears on Tuesday as she cut a ribbon to launch the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls at Henley-on-Klip, south of Johannesburg, and unfurled the South African flag and the school pennant.

“This is the day I have been waiting for the past six years. This is the proudest, greatest day of my life. This is a supreme moment of destiny for me.”

“When you educate a girl, you begin to change the face of a nation.”

The US$40-million facility, funded entirely by The Oprah Winfrey Foundation, is spread over 21 hectares and composed of 28 buildings with modern classrooms, laboratories and an auditorium.

It will provide free education to the girls from poor families drawn from all of the country’s nine provinces, chosen for their intelligence and leadership qualities.

The star-studded event was attended by celebrities such as Hollywood veteran Sidney Poitier, singers Tina Turner, Mary J Blige and Mariah Carey, film director Spike Lee, comedian Chris Rock and television personality Diane Sawyer.

Many of the celebrities brought along a book that had meant a lot to them to be added to the school library.

“It’s a remarkable adventure and I hope it’s the first of lots of schools. I am going to try help as much as I can and not make this my only visit,” Rock said.

Winfrey drew parallels between herself and the 152 children chosen to study at the school who she calls “my girls.” They in turn call her “Mom Oprah.”

“I was looking for girls with ‘it.’ An incredible, indefinable quality that shines so bright neither poverty nor the circumstances of poverty can dim it,” said Winfrey.

Winfrey, who overcame a poverty-ridden and troubled childhood to gain a net worth of at least $1.5 billion, according to Forbes, said she wanted to give girls like her a chance in life.

“A girl who is educated is less likely to have HIV/AIDS. A girl who is educated is less likely to have a child out of wedlock,” said Winfrey, adding that her charges would be tested for HIV if their parents consented.

South Africa has the world’s second highest caseload of HIV/AIDS in the world, with 5.5 million people in the country living with the virus.

The girls aged between 11 and 13 were chosen after an initial 3,500 applications were whittled down to 500, when Winfrey stepped into the interviewing process.

“I went to their homes; I met their parents and teachers. I know their story because their story is my story,” she said.

Thirteen-year-old Lesego Tlhabanyae from Soweto was ecstatic.

“I’m so excited. I believe every child deserves a free and fair education. I’m looking forward to the comfy beds and my new friends,” said Tlhabanyae, who was orphaned when her father shot his wife before killing himself.

When Winfrey visited Mandela six years ago, he asked her to fund worthy causes. She initially pledged 70 million rand for the school but ended up giving 280 million rand.

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