When Oprah Winfrey learned in early October that a dorm matron had allegedly abused students at her beloved Leadership Academy for Girls near Johannesburg, South Africa, she cried for a half hour. She was stunned that her $40-million-plus dream of educating that country's brightest, most disadvantaged girls had turned into a nightmare. But the woman who overcame her own poverty and sexual abuse to become one of the world's richest and most influential role models quickly turned what she calls "one of the, if not the most, devastating experiences of my life" into a springboard for action.
Within days, she and BFF Gayle King, along with Houston child psychiatrist and author (The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog) Dr. Bruce Perry, flew to the school to check out the problems themselves. There had been rumors of trouble on campus before, among them complaints that kids were denied parental visits, but the headmistress had assured Winfrey that things were fine. The academy "was not what Oprah had envisioned," admits Perry. "We found a climate of intimidation and fear and a lack of leadership." The child-trauma expert says that Winfrey spoke to each girl individually, encouraging them to "break the silence" and come forward with the truth. Fifteen of them did, recounting how they were verbally, physically and even sexually abused by dorm matron Tiny Virginia Makopo.
The students "were tremendously relieved" to see the talk-show host, "who they love and adore and call Mama Oprah," Perry reveals. "It was as if they were being rescued." They probably were. Winfrey immediately started making changes both in personnel — the headmistress has been sacked and a search is under way for a replacement — and in how the school is run. After she headed back to Chicago, she called in investigators from the States to check out the charges. On Oct. 15 they notified the local police of Makopo's alleged actions. Winfrey then returned the next week to meet with the students' parents. "I apologized for the unfortunate circumstances and promised changes," she said later. "The parents understood that it was not Oprah's fault, that she was mortified and things were going to change," Perry reports. "This was very hard for her. She's an amazing woman who took responsibility and only wants what's best for the girls."
After the investigation, the dorm matron was arrested and now faces 13 charges of indecent assault. Currently free on bail, she is due back in court on Dec. 13. "This has shaken me to my core," Winfrey said at an emotional satellite press conference on Nov. 5. (She was asked by police not to speak publicly until an arrest was made.) "But I don't think as a school we have failed the girls. What I know is that no one... can destroy the dream that each girl continues to hold for herself at this school. And I am prepared to do whatever is necessary to make sure that the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls becomes the safe, nurturing and enriched setting that I had envisioned." To help reach that goal, Winfrey is giving each student a cell phone with her own personal number on speed dial.
So far, her assurances are working. Many girls, we're told, were considering leaving the school. Most of them have changed their minds. The academy, says Winfrey emphatically, "will become a model for the world." And what Oprah wants, Oprah usually makes happen.
Check out TVGuide.com's November Sweeps Preview for a look at the month's biggest twists on Heroes, Men in Trees, CSI and more.
For more on Oprah Winfrey, visit our Online Video Guide.
You can find all four exclusive illustrated Heroes covers on newsstands, or try four risk-free issues now! Also, visit our Heroes webpage for a gallery of the covers, an exclusive video of artist Tim Sale at work, and much more.
Send your comments on this feature to firstname.lastname@example.org.