The blessings keep coming to West Side High School in Newark, where its principal, Akbar Cook, is removing barriers to education and making national news for how he cares about his kids.
Remember when Ellen DeGeneres had him on her talk show twice? She gave him $50,000 each time for his “Lights On” program that keeps kids off the street from 6 p.m. to midnight.
Well, Oprah Winfrey wants the lights to stay on for a long time, too. In a surprise visit Friday evening, Winfrey dropped in to say she is giving $500,000 to West Side’s summer initiative, which is also held during the school year on Friday nights.
“I heard about West Side and all of the great things that are happening here," Winfrey said to a packed gymnasium of screaming students. “I thought, ‘what can I do?’"
Lights On, which was first featured in a column I wrote three years ago, has been gaining attention after Cook came up with another innovative idea to help students who were being bullied.
He installed washing machines at the school last September. His students, who couldn’t afford to wash their clothes, were missing school because they were being harassed by classmates when they wore dirty garments.
That story, also first featured in a column here, blew up and went viral as media outlets learned about Cook. DeGeneres had him on the show twice. Winfrey said she saw Cook in a CBS news report and loved how his approach to education was comprehensive.
“I was moved by his story," Winfrey said. “Let me find this guy. Let me see what I can do to help further what he’s trying to do."
Half a million does a lot. Plus, Winfrey’s visit says a lot more.
After she left, Cook held her hand in the parking lot, grateful for her time and generosity.
“My kids feel like they don’t have anyone," Cook said. “And you just took time out of your busy schedule to show me and my babies love. I’m floored. I’m truly humbled."
Winfrey stopped him.
“We are humbled by you," she said.
Cook, who is also the varsity basketball coach, doesn’t seek the spotlight. This ride West Side has been on is for the kids. Not him. It’s never about him.
The public sees that each time he does an interview. West Side has received detergent, clothing, deodorant, toothpaste and hygiene products from around the world. The list includes Germany, Austria, Australia, South Africa, Switzerland, Norway, Kenya, Barbados and Canada.
“Love is powerful," Cook said. “This is because they have been showing my kids and me and this community that they love them."
Winfrey, who came with her friend and CBS co-anchor Gayle King, had something extra for his kids. Everyone who was at the “Lights On” program would receive a $50 gift certificate to go shopping.
Students and staff lost it. And, that was before she told them about the $500,000.
“This is big," said Inaisha Baker, 17. “I was shocked.”
Students say their school is often maligned for having a non-academic reputation and perceived as a place where fights occur. Not anymore. Thank Cook and his staff for that. He’s been to Harvard University and other colleges for conferences to talk about what he’s doing at West Side
Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J), a presidential candidate and Newark’s former mayor, has tweeted about the principal, praising him during Black History Month as someone who should be admired.
Count Winfrey as his latest fan, who believes in Cook’s wholistic approach to making kids successful.
“Everybody always talks about the grades. You can’t start to talk about the grades unless they feel safe, unless they feel seen, unless they feel respected, unless they feel valued," she said.
Winfrey wasn’t there that long as the kids swarmed around her, clamoring for selfies. In the rear of the building, she took more pictures. Inside, student were still stunned.
“I didn’t see it coming," said Ayuba Ismail, 17.
The only thing anyone knew was that somebody famous was coming to the school. Cook didn’t tell anyone, but he did say the pizza party for the program was provided by Winfrey. Few got the hint, even after seeing Oprah’s name and the name of her pizza on the box: O That’s Good! Many of them thought DeGeneres was coming.
Athletic Director Gary Taylor penciled in LeBron James. After seeing Winfrey, he said her stature, along with the national attention, will continue to help West Side flourish.
“We did it with love," Cook said of Winfrey’s visit.
“It wasn’t for some nonsense or for kids getting killed. We are the trailblazers for the world to see what could be done."