'These Are My Dream Girls'

01/04/2007 at 12:00 PM EST

'These Are My Dream Girls'
"I did not think it was possible to have this love for other people's children," said Winfrey (cutting the ribbon on Jan. 2 alongside some of her students).
Denis Farell/AP
'These Are My Dream Girls'| Oprah Winfrey

"I now know this is why I never had children myself. These are my girls and I love them, every one of them," said Winfrey.

Denis Farell / AP

In fact Winfrey has taken 152 girls under her wing – and that's just the beginning. Drawn from impoverished homes in South Africa, they make up the inaugural classes of Winfrey's ambitious new school designed to help girls with little hope for a future realize their full potential. The $40 million-plus venture, which was financed by Winfrey herself, covers seventh and eighth grades for now, but it will continue to add classes until 450 children are in attendance in grades 7-12. Winfrey and a galaxy of celebs were on hand for the official ribbon-cutting ceremony at the academy on Jan. 2. "This is everything I have ever worked for," said Winfrey, 52. "Education is the best gift you can ever have as a kid."

Students, who are all from South Africa and can be of any race, have been chosen based on factors ranging from financial hardship (the girls' families must have a household monthly income below $700) to compelling personal histories. One of the girls, Given Skhosana – a 13-year-old from Soweto – was raped at age 5. Before starting anew at the academy, she was living not far from her attacker, who went free. These girls, says Winfrey, have "that indefinable quality – that light that cannot be dimmed no matter how much hardship or poverty you have known."

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