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Oprah Winfrey provides $5 million to start COVID-19 relief network in ‘home city’ of Chicago

Chicago Tribune logo Chicago Tribune 5 days ago By Steve Johnson and Darcel Rockett, Chicago Tribune

Calling Chicago one of her “home cities,” Oprah Winfrey Wednesday launched a major relief effort aimed at fighting food insecurity and providing medical aid in African American and Latinx communities that face increased risk of severe COVID-19 consequences.

The $5 million donation starts Live Healthy Chicago, a consortium of food, religious, medical and other community organizations. It is part of a larger, $12 million relief effort from the Oprah Winfrey Charitable Foundation, she said, aimed at helping the places where she lived on her way to fame and fortune.

“I wanted to not try to serve the world but go back to the places that have given to me,” she said. In addition to Chicago, the cities where organizations are receiving grants are Nashville and Baltimore, where she had early broadcast jobs, and Milwaukee and Kosciusko, Miss., where she grew up.

“If this had been the pandemic when I was a kid, what would have happened to me? I would have gone hungry,” she said, becoming emotional on the Zoom call from her home in Santa Barbara, Calif., where she moved after ending her eponymous talk show made in Chicago in 2011, following 25 years in national syndication. “My mother wouldn’t have been able to get on that bus to go to the suburbs to clean white people’s houses, and I would have gone hungry. So I am trying to do for those kids who would have been me... what I would have wanted somebody to step up and do.”

Although she usually likes to follow the teach-a-person-to-fish model of giving, “right now people just need some fish and some bread,” Winfrey said. “My goal was to try to literally put the money and services in the pockets of people who need it most now.”

The Live Healthy Chicago network involves West Side United, Rush University Medical Center, the MAAFA Redemption Project of the New Mount Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church, My Block My Hood My City and Forty Acres Fresh Market, the foundation said, and it plans to provide care packages, contact tracing and wellness visits.

The goal is to both address immediate needs during the public health crisis and to seed long-term recovery in challenged communities, said Winfrey.

“I think there is going to be an ongoing need for people of means to use whatever their abilities are, financial or otherwise, as an essential service to the people who are essential service givers,” Winfrey said. “People of means, give what you can, where you can.”

Leaders of the involved groups celebrated the effort, which Winfrey’s organization said is meant to complement the work of the city’s Racial Equity Rapid Response Team, a response to the pandemic that West Side United last month helped Mayor Lori Lightfoot convene.

"The Oprah Winfrey Charitable Foundation’s investment in Live Healthy Chicago accelerates our work to not just fight this virus, but to address the underlying reasons it is taking so many black and brown lives,” Ayesha Jaco, executive director of West Side United, a multifaceted health and economic wellness organization, said in a statement.

Jaco said $2.9M will go back into those 20 communities the network serves by way of community grants over the next two years. The remaining dollars will go toward leveraging what Live Healthy Chicago’s organizations have already been doing: wellness checks, training young people and community members to be community health workers, work around food access, among other assistance.

“To have an international figure like Oprah say I want to help, really paints a picture of how important it is to work together toward a solution in the immediate and long term recovery of repair that is needed due to COVID-19 and that was already there given the historical conditions of our community,” Jaco said.

sajohnson@chicagotribune.com

drockett@chicagotribune.com

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