'Mom Oprah': Winfrey Opens Up on Emotional Journey with First Graduates


One of the most poignant moments for Winfrey when the school was being built, she said, was watching the girls realize they had plumbing for the first time.

"When you are in your home, and you have nice tile, and you have carpet on the floor, and you have an aesthetic of beauty and an appreciation that says, 'You are valued and you are valuable,' and that was what I was most excited about -- 'Notice the artwork, girls,'" Winfrey said. "But they were most excited about the plumbing, because it means, 'I can take shower, I don't have to find buckets of water that are two kilometers away, I don't have to share a pump with 56 other people, I can have my own bed, I can flush the toilet.'"

The journey didn't come without its hardships. Shortly after the school opened in Meyerton, South Africa, a town outside of Johannesburg, in January 2007, Virigina Tiny Makopo, a school matron, was charged with sexually molesting several girls. At the time, Winfrey flew to South Africa to personally apologize to the students and their families. She also fired the school's headmistress, Lerato Nomvuyo Mzamane. Makopo was acquitted of all charges in October 2010.

In the wake of the scandal, Winfrey decided to re-double her commitment to her young students instead of quitting.

"It takes a level of commitment and leadership, and a commitment to sustainability in the long term that makes all the difference," she said.

None of the girls who attended Winfrey's school had financial support to live away from home, although both they and their families understood the life-altering gift of education. Now, as they prepare to continue their education at the college level, Winfrey is still mothering, still providing support for them.

"I knew from the moment that I met these girls that I was going to fall in love with them, and I did," she said. "When you change a girl's life, you change not just her -- you change the whole family."

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