Oprah Winfrey On Whether She Would Have Survived COVID-19 as a Child: 'I Could Weep'

Oprah Winfrey On Whether She Would Have Survived COVID-19 as a Child: 'I Could Weep'

May 20, 2020

Oprah Winfrey never forgets her humble beginnings.

Winfrey says she relates to those who have been most impacted by COVID-19 —in particular impoverished and working-class communities of color.

Had this pandemic struck when she was growing up in Kosciusko, Mississippi or Milwaukee, Wisconsin, she tells PEOPLE, "I could weep to think about what my family would have been."

“My mother wouldn’t have been able to go to work," she says. "She was a domestic (maid), traveling on the bus from inner-city 9th Street Milwaukee to Fox Point in the suburbs. That would not have been happening. We would have been doing what we could to find food."

Winfrey lived with her mom Vernita Lee, who was raising three children by herself on a maid’s salary.

"There wasn’t health insurance," she recalls. "Not only did we not have insurance, every time the insurance man came to the door my mom told to me tell him she wasn’t at home. You tried not to get sick because if you got sick, it threw everything off. And she had to decide, 'Am I going to take my child to the doctor, or am I going to feed my child?' So we would have been hungry."

Now, Winfrey is trying to help families like hers.

Via the Oprah Winfrey Charitable Foundation, she is donating $12 million to organizations in Kosciusko, Milwaukee, Nashville, Baltimore and Chicago that are aiding the most vulnerable populations in those communities.

"It's one of the reasons I felt compelled to do something for other kids—kids I could have been," she says. "Finding organizations that go directly into the community have been proven to create sustainability within the communities is what I was looking for."

The grants were distributed among:

Live Healthy Chicago: An initiative to provide thousands of families in predominately African-American and Latinx communities, which are known to face an elevated risk of severe symptoms, immediate support in the form of wellness visits, contact tracing and care packages.

West Side United: "I said, 'I want somebody who’s going to reach women, I want somebody who’s going to feed people directly, I want somebody who’s going to talk to guys who have been incarcerated and have come out of in prison," says Winfrey of how she chose the organization. "I want to be able to affect all those different arms. Can you put me in touch with organizations that are doing it well on the ground?' "

NashvilleNurtures: A collaboration between Mount Zion Baptist Church and Tennessee State University, Winfrey’s alma mater, providing immediate food relief to over 10,000 families in the greater Nashville area. "In Nashville, I called together a coalition of African-American ministers and asked them to help me along with my former Tennessee State University, 'Can you help me do a coordinated effort of reaching people, feeding people?' " she says.

SaintA: An organization that provides telehealth mental health services to Milwaukee residents, particularly in the African-American community hit hardest by COVID-19. SaintA is outfitting up to 150 students, adults, and families, who would not otherwise be able to access quality mental health care, with telehealth devices and internet access for a year.

The Nia Imani Family, Inc.: The Milwaukee-based organization provides housing for young, pregnant or first-time mothers, many of whom are recovering from homelessness, violence, and traumatic life experiences.

The Boys and Girls Club of East Mississippi: Established a drive-thru food pantry to provide daily food support for over 1500 children in East Mississippi.

Living Classrooms Foundation: A non-profit in Baltimore that disrupts the cycle of poverty and helps the community become safer, stronger, and healthier by meeting individuals where they are and building skills for life. Living Classrooms inspires children, youth, and adults to achieve their potential through hands-on education, workforce development, health and wellness, and violence prevention programming.

Center for Urban Families: A Baltimore organization that addresses some of the city’s most pressing issues including poverty, unemployment, father-absence, and family disintegration. Through addressing the key challenges of Baltimore’s urban families by working to connect fathers to their children, creating opportunities for economic and financial security through work, and providing access to other key interventions and supportive services, CFUF has served over 29,000 vulnerable Baltimoreans, providing the bridge that many have needed to attain stability and serves more than 1,400 men and women a year.

Additional recipients of the Oprah Winfrey Charitable Foundation COVID-19 Relief Fund include:

America’s Food Fund – including donations to the Sweetgreen Impact Outpost Fund, Second

Harvest of Nashville, and the Greater Chicago Food Depository

Minnie’s Food Pantry in Plano, Texas

Direct Relief in partnership with the Sean Combs Dance-A-Thon

New Mount Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church in Chicago, Illinois

The MAAFA Redemption Project in Chicago, Illinois

Global Citizen

Unity Shoppe, Inc. in Santa Barbara, California

As information about the coronavirus pandemic rapidly changes, PEOPLE is committed to providing the most recent data in our coverage. Some of the information in this story may have changed after publication. For the latest on COVID-19, readers are encouraged to use online resources from CDC, WHO, and local public health departments. PEOPLE has partnered with GoFundMe to raise money for the COVID-19 Relief Fund, a GoFundMe.org fundraiser to support everything from frontline responders to families in need, as well as organizations helping communities. For more information or to donate, click here.

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