Kudos to Oprah for Dreaming Big in South Africa

Yesterday, January 1, 2007 will make for a significant date in the lives of 150 girls in South Africa. 150 very fortunate girls began school at the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls, in Henley-on-Klip which is just south of Johannesburg. The academy is open to girls, ages 11 and 12, who show strong academic and leadership potential and whose families make no more than $787 dollars per month. It will eventually accommodate 450 girls.

The $40 million dollar facility is lavish for sure, boasting an on site theatre, top notch study and science lab facilities, a library and a wellness center. It is also reported that each dorm room has huge closets for every girl and 300 thread count sheets. While some critics say that the facility is too lavish for the South African environment. . .Oprah disagrees. She says that the girls’ huge closets are a necessity because although they are coming with nothing but the clothes on their backs, they will have things. Even the 300 thread count sheets are part of the philosophy of the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy: “If you’re surrounded by beautiful things, that will bring out the beauty within you.”

A Big Vision

I have to be honest and say that reason I chose to blog on this story is not because it involves Oprah Winfrey. I love Oprah but what caught me was her vision. She is not talking about educating 450 girls. She is talking about “changing the face of a nation.” She is taking those who would least likely be educated, and giving them a totally different future. Many of the girls who come to this academy would have otherwise had a very poor education if any education at all. And as if building a $40 million dollar facility wasn’t enough, she has also vowed to continue supporting them so that they can attend any university in the world.

In addition, this is her response to the HIV/AIDS crisis. She points out that those who are educated are less likely to get HIV/AIDS. By educating these young girls, she is contributing towards stopping the epidemic before it gets started. Doing something to stop a world wide pandemic (at its most prominent source) in addition to giving potentially thousands of girls the means to change their own lives–to me, is a big vision.

Oprah understands something very profound about education. By choosing these girls, in this place, she is educating those who may one day return and in so doing positively affect the future of their nation. I realize not every girl will return. But I am sure that the ones who do will have a profound impact on their surroundings.

Too Lavish?

Some say that the school is simply too lavish for this area of the world. The issue is not that they wouldn’t advocate for South African girls being educated. The issue is how many more girls you could reach with $40 million dollars. For example, if you took the $40 million dollars and improved all schools so that the girls could go locally to their school, how many more girls could you help?

Certainly, as I’ve worked with impoverished communities in many areas of the world, I understand this thinking. One time a missions group where I was working brought in 100 large cases of Evian water for the community to drink. Those of us who were there began to do the calculations: for the price they paid for the brand named bottled water, they could’ve paid to have a well built. When you look at it like that, it does seem futile.

But then again, this is Oprah we’re talking about here. She’s on a mission and she has a vision. I have a feeling if someone asked her to buy a well, she’d buy ten and throw in the Evian water just because. Kudos to Oprah for getting involved in such a personal way!

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