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The Oprah Effect

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OPRAH FAREWELL

Many people are currently suffering from Oprah withdrawal, anticipating the loss of everything from her fashion picks to gurus' tips.

The symptoms are hard to miss. Shakes. Cravings. And the desperate need for book recommendations.

We expect our withdrawal symptoms will be somewhat different -- to us Oprah's greatest legacy is her social impact.

Craig first met Oprah in 1999 when, at 16, he was a guest on a show about young people making a difference. Oprah being Oprah, the guests all got surprise gifts. Craig received a cheque from a young boy who had raised money to build a school in Nicaragua.

But the biggest surprise came when Oprah pledged to help us build schools. During the break, a stunned crew member asked Oprah if she wanted to re-tape the segment -- minus her spontaneous burst of generosity. She didn't.

Millions of people watch Oprah's acts of kindness every day -- and we can assure you she's just as passionate and resolute off-camera.

Oprah and her viewers helped us build 59 schools in 12 countries, changing 30,000 young lives. In Haiti, children orphaned after the earthquake get a support network; in India and rural China, girls go to school instead of to work in factories; in Sierra Leone, former child soldiers are reclaiming their childhoods.

Since that spontaneous gift, we've been back to her show five times to share school updates, and sometimes life-altering, heart-wrenching moments.

In 2004, Oprah reached out to us with a special request. Her close friend and the show's featured design expert Nate Berkus survived the devastating South Asian tsunami, but he lost his partner, Fernando Bengoechea. Oprah asked us to build a school in Fernando's memory, then travel with Nate to the emotional opening ceremony. Craig will never forget standing with Nate, in tears, as he relived the crushing wall of water and then realized he'd helped rebuild a community.

The more moments we shared with Oprah, the more we were in awe of how hard she works; taping back-to-back episodes, chairing board meetings, embracing her charity work. Oprah has always been candid about her humble roots. It helped America fall in love with her. We were curious about the motivation behind her mission, so we asked her to share a story for a book we were writing titled Me to We.

She told us of a Christmas when she was 12, and her mom, who was single, was struggling on welfare. She couldn't afford presents for Oprah and her two siblings. It wasn't the lost hope of new toys that upset Oprah, it was the embarrassment. How does a child tell their classmates that she got nothing for Christmas? There are no words.

After Oprah had all but given up on Christmas, there was a knock at the family's door. Three nuns had come with gifts: a turkey, a fruit basket, and games, as well as a simple doll for Oprah. She told us she cherishes that moment as the best Christmas of her childhood. "I remember feeling that I mattered enough to these nuns... I wasn't forgotten. Somebody had thought enough of me to bring me a gift," she recalled.

Years later, Oprah started Christmas Kindness, a program that brought gifts to South African children. Sneakers for kids who'd never owned shoes and soccer balls for those who longed to play the country's favourite sport. And dolls. Of course, dolls. That Christmas, she brought joy to 50,000 children, but felt "more than a million moments of happiness."

The gift of that one doll has had an enormous ripple effect that continues to spread across the globe.

We saw it when she pledged to help us build schools all those years ago. And we see it in our final collaboration with Oprah.

Since the program launched in 2007, more than 2,000 O Ambassadors Clubs sprung up in schools across the U.S. and in every Canadian province. Thanks to Oprah's calls to action, more than $1 million was raised to fund schools and other development projects for children around the world. Oprah has told us that these children are her life's mission.

Everyone misses Oprah, and her last show hasn't even aired yet. We'll miss her, too, but we'd rather not say goodbye. We'd rather say thank you, Oprah, for your passionate generosity and for the gift of education.