Newark principal wants to use Oprah's $500,000 donation for "restorative" programs
Oprah Winfrey was so inspired by a CBS News story on a high school principal changing his students' lives, that she decided to help in a big way.
New Jersey principal Akbar Cook started the "Lights On" program at West Side High School in Newark to give students somewhere safe to hang out on Friday nights. The school remains open every Friday from 6 to 11 o'clock, for kids to use the school gym, play games, and eat. In the summer it's open three nights a week.
The media mogul was inspired to get involved with the "Lights On" initiative after seeing a "CBS Evening News" report about it in March.
In it, Cook also showed off five commercial-grade washers and dryers installed so students who can;t wash their clothes at home can do so at school.
Last Friday, Oprah showed up at the school. Students didn't know she was coming, but Principal Cook did. What he didn't know was what else Oprah wanted to give to them.
In addition to serving up with pizza (from her O, That's Good! Line), she brought something extra: a donation to the program.
"I'm gonna leave here tonight, and leave you with half a million dollars!" she told the crowd, who burst into cheers.
Correspondent David Begnaud asked Anthony, a junior, why he chooses to be at the school at night. "I like to play basketball a lot, it's my favorite sport," he replied. "I come here and I play basketball from 6 to 10 o'clock, then I go home."
The $500,000 donation means West Side will be able to keep their lights on all summer.
For Principal Cook, Oprah's gift felt like an act of love: "Love is powerful; you cannot underestimate the power of love. They've been showing my kids and me and this community that they love them, and it's gone a long way."
Begnaud asked Winfrey what the lesson was from what she did.
"The lesson is, every day there's a story that you can do something about," she said. "Today I actually did something."
Appearing on "CBS This Morning" Monday, Cook said that the program definitely has had a positive effect on the students. "We just started doing it with love, and you could see the change," he said. "My kids felt a sense of pride. It's making them want to be that superstar student and successful citizen that we want them to be, and it's just all because of love, just being consistent and sticking with it. Most times they didn't have anyone. So, now we all are championing them, and they feel it."
Cooks said the "Lights On" program, now in its fourth year, was begun because he had lost three students to gun violence: "And since we opened it up at school, we haven't lost any more kids."
He admitted that there was some resistance at first from the kids to being at school until 11 p.m. on Friday nights. "You have to build trust," he said. "When we first started off, it was just basketball and jump rope. … We realized that we needed to do more things for the young ladies, and once we started doing that, the guys came!"
He hopes to expand the programs beyond just recreational time: "I still need to do more just restorative things for the kids – yes, it's recreational, but if I can give them some educational resources and show them some life skills so they can be more employable to employers, anything I can [do] to make them successful.
"I know we all want to send our kids straight to college, but sometimes these kids can't [go]. They need to go to the work force to support their siblings, [or] their own children."
Other principals have reached out about the "Lights On" program. "We want to be out in L.A. at a school in Watts," Cook said. "Yale University contacted me; they want to do it in New Haven, Conn. And Las Vegas has, I think, 300,000 students; we're working with Clark County.
"So yes, principals have been reaching out and I'm trying to take this show on the road, because how dare I sit on something this awesome and not share it with the world?"
To see the complete interview with Akbar Cook watch the video above.
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