Oprah’s stealth philanthropy in Chicago

Oprah’s stealth philanthropy in Chicago

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Chicago and Oprah Winfrey go hand-in-hand.

She built a TV empire here, and there’s no doubt that the media mogul has been a booster for the Windy City.

Oprah lovers make the pilgrimage to her studio, contributing to tourism with dining and hotel stays along the way.

But her legacy is bigger than an economic engine to Chicago.

Oprah’s philanthropic legacy in Chicago is vast, but under the radar.

ambi: water fountain outside Millennium Park

ambi fades

There aren’t that many places or things named after Oprah in Chicago, but one of them’s going to last a long time. I’m looking for it in downtown Chicago’s Millennium Park, a showpiece on Michigan Avenue.  Here it is Oprah Winfrey name in all caps on a wall. It lists the founders of this enormous park.

Oprah gave a million dollars of her own money to make this park happen, but that’s a fraction of her largesse.

The exact figures for Oprah’s philanthropic impact in Chicago are hard to pinpoint, but one person with some insight on the big picture – is former mayor Richard M. Daley.

DALEY: In so many different ways she’s given. Also quiet ways that no one really knows about. She doesn’t have to have great accolades about this. She just does it.

Well, that’s true, but Winfrey’s Harpo Production company says there is a ballpark figure, and here it is:

Oprah Winfrey has given more than $350 million during her lifetime.

Not all of that went to Chicago, of course.

Her production company Harpo provided a list of Chicago organizations that have benefited from the Oprah Winfrey Foundation and the Oprah Angel Network. According to the city, she gave $5 million to area nonprofits from the Angel Network.

But Harpo list doesn’t outline the rest of the money.

So I made some calls and got a few specifics on Oprah’s  Chicago giving.

The Inspiration Café … which helps the homeless … got $10,000.

The Aids Foundation of Chicago got $45,000.

And LaRabida Children’s Hospital received $60,000 .

ambi: school lunchroom

Providence St. Mel is another organization affected by the Oprah touch.

It’s a private school on Chicago’s West Side that educates black students.

Adams: say you, young man, come here. Go in the bathroom and pull up your pants, if not, I’ll pull them up for you.

Paul Adams is the avuncular founder of Providence St. Mel. He says in 1993 Oprah came to the school’s annual fundraiser.

ADAMS: And Oprah Winfrey came up and made some statements that she had a sale of shoes. And she asked me to come and she gave me - I guess it was $597 and as I walked away she said, ‘well I have something else for you.’ And in her hand she had a check for $1 million dollars.

Adams was speechless. The money helped thrust the school in the digital age. She also narrated a documentary on Providence St. Mel.

ADAMS: I just think that Oprah is a combination of a lot of great people. If we had more Oprah Winfreys around this would indeed be a better world.

PALMER: One of the things that very unusual about Oprah is that she gives generously of her own money to charitable causes.

Stacy Palmer is editor of the Chronicle of Philanthropy.

PALMER: She gives so much that she ranks among the 50 biggest donors to charity and has done so for several years in a row and we just don’t see that very often with celebrities.

The other thing that makes Oprah remarkable is that she is black and female, and has her own money. Palmer says many women on the top 50 list inherited money from men.


In Chicago, Oprah’s checks run the gamut: Cabrini Connections; American Library Association; the DuSable Museum, Connections for Abused Women and their Children and Spanish Coalition for Jobs, Inc. 

But several of Oprah’s most generous moments aren’t on the list. She once gave heaters to residents in the Robert Taylor high-rise public housing development. When she filmed a movie near Henry Horner – also a public housing development – she set up a scholarship program for youth.

Although Oprah is equated with Chicago, she wasn’t connected to the city socially. She didn’t frequent the local party, philanthropic or black-tie circuit. She saves some of that for Hollywood.  The one place Chicagoans might get a glimpse is at her favorite restaurant – RL on Michigan Avenue.

Hermene Hartman publishes N’digo – a weekly that caters to Chicago’s well-heeled black middle class. Her office is blocks away from Harpo. Hartman says people call her — itching to get to Oprah … and she understands Oprah’s low-key approach.

HARTMAN: I’m sure given her popularity whenever she does something it’s going to make the news, it’s going to have splash to it, it’s going to have sensation to that. You get tired of that, she’s got to live here.

The Harpo camp declined to give an interview about Oprah’s benevolence to Chicago.

But recently the daytime doyenne waxed lyrical about her adopted hometown.

This month, Mayor Daley unveiled an honorary street named: Oprah Winfrey Way.

WINFREY: I just would like to stay thank you to the mayor and also to the city of Chicago for embracing me and allowing me to take a stand and make a stand here in this city. After I moved here, I thought this place is my Tara.

Tara … That’s a reference to the movie ‘Gone With the Wind.’

Oprah went on with her reference to the classic film, saying the main character, Scarlett O’Hara, should’ve known about Chicago.

After all, in Oprah’s words, this is the greatest city in the world.

The Oprah Winfrey Foundation grants to Chicago organizations

100 Black Men of Chicago

Agassiz Elementary School

AIDS Foundation of Chicago

American Heart Association

Anti-Defamation League

Art Institute of Chicago

Athletes Against Drugs

Black Creativity

Building with Books (BwB)

Byrd Community Academy

Chicago Academy for the Arts

Chicago Global Donors Network

Chicago Public Library Foundation

Children’s Memorial Foundation

City Year Chicago

Common Threads

Community Film Workshop

Cook County Public Guardian

CRIS Radio

Duncan YMCA

DuSable Museum

Gale Community Academy

Genesis House

Greater Chicago Food Depository

Healthy Families Chicago

Inspiration Café

La Rabida Childrens Hospital

Literacy Chicago


Millennium Park, Inc

Museum of Broadcast Communications

NATAS Chicago Foundation

National Committee to Prevent Child Abuse


People Reaching Out Center

Project Astro

Providence St. Mel

Rebecca Crown Center

Ryder Math/Science Specialty School

Scleroderma Research Foundation

Spanish Coalition for Jobs, Inc.

St. Joseph’s Carondelet Child Center

St. Sabina

The Jesse Owens Foundation

The Ounce of Prevention Fund

The Shedd Aquarium

The Three Arts Club of Chicago

Uhlich Children’s Advantage Network

Urban Prep Academies

Weizmann Institute of Science Rehovot, Israel

Windows of Opportunity

Young Women’s Leadership Charter School of Chicago

Oprah’s Angel Network - Chicago organizations

A Little Bit of Heaven                            

American Library Association

America’s Second Harvest                    

Cabrini Connections, Tutor/Mentor Connection               

The CARA Program                  

Centers For New Horizons Inc.              

Communities in Schools of Chicago                  

Connections for Abused Women and their Children                    

Donors Forum of Chicago                    

Friends of Battered Women and Their Children               

Girls In The Game         

Healthy Schools Campaign                   

Heartland Alliance for Human Needs and Human Rights             

LEARN Charter School Network                        

Life Span                                 

Logan Square Neighborhood Association                      

Lydia Home Association                                   

Merit School of Music

North Lawndale Employment Network    

Northwestern University Settlement Association                         

Project Match Families Inc.                   

Reading in Motion                                

Renaissance Schools Fund                   

Target Hope College Preparatory Academy       

University of Chicago Cancer Research Foundation

University of Illinois Foundation                        

Women’s Global Education Project          

Music Button: Max Steiner, Main Title/Tara’s Theme, from the CD Gone With The Wind Original Soundtrack, (Rhino)