Oprah: 'Their Story Is My Story'

Jan. 2, 2007 — -- It took $40 million and six years to build, but the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls is finally opening today in South Africa.

Winfrey, a powerful entertainment mogul, calls it "the fulfillment of my work on Earth."

The school, located in the small town of Henley-on-Klip, south of Johannesburg, began with a promise to former South African President Nelson Mandela to help educate girls in the nation with a dark history of apartheid.

"I wanted to give this opportunity to girls … who had a light so bright that not poverty or disease could dim that light," Winfrey said at a news conference.

More than 150 of the country's brightest young girls from the most impoverished backgrounds were handpicked to attend the boarding school.

Many of them have had their lives ravaged by AIDS, rape and disease. Some are orphans; many came to the school hungry.

"I know their story because it is my story," Winfrey said.

All Girl Wanted Was School Uniform

Winfrey's mission began when she traveled to South Africa to bring clothes and gifts to needy children. Among them were 15-year-old Thanda and her sister.

Both of the girls' parents had died of AIDS, and they had little food. When Winfrey asked them what they wanted, Thanda replied that she wanted a uniform so she could go to school.

A school uniform cost $6, and children were not allowed to attend school without one.

Another girl Winfrey met told her: "I'm going to be a doctor, because I want to find a cure -- a cure for AIDS."

And another child who came into Winfrey's life led to her decision to open the school.

This girl, wanting help from no one, struggled up a long dirt path with her food parcel. She lived in a tiny shack, the walls covered in cardboard to keep out the cold.

When the girl began unpacking her gifts, Winfrey knew she had made a small difference in the girl's life.

"This is the most beautiful outfit I have ever had. I'm so lucky," the girl said.

Winfrey was immediately inspired.

"So I thought, 'Well what can I do?'" Winfrey said in a "Primetime" interview with Diane Sawyer. "So for me education has been the road to success. To me education is freedom. And I believe the future of this country, of Africa, will depend upon the leadership of its women. And that's just not a feminist rhetoric. It really is the truth as I see it."

In 2002, Winfrey was joined by Mandela to break ground on the 52-acre site that would house her dream school. Today that dream has become a reality for 152 young girls.

Watch "Good Morning America" on Wednesday to see more about the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls.