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Oprah, I’ve written you many times, but here is why this letter is different

To: Oprah

From: Briana Lee (As told to Lauren Brill)

Write a letter to your younger self! Share your story and win cash! Giving away $650 in prize money.

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Dear Oprah, 

It’s been about 15 years since I last wrote to you. As a teenager, I probably sent you about 10-20 letters. But this one is different. 

I grew up in the foster care system, living in seven different homes throughout my childhood. My life was filled with abuse and suffering. It was tough, real tough. 

Briana as a child.

With no self-esteem, at 13 years old, I was lonely, sad, and confused. 

I used to wonder, “Why didn’t I have a home with nice parents like most other kids?”

Then, one day my younger brother and I watched The Color Purple, and we absolutely loved it. I remember your character was a strong black woman who stood up for herself. While I already knew who you were, after watching that movie, I became a huge fan. 

That same week, I was flipping through the channels and I happened to come across your show for the very first time. It was an episode about child abuse and molestation. As I watched the show, I began to cry. The stories shared so closely resembled my own experiences. That’s when I finally was able to put a name to the abuse I endured. That’s when I realized what I experienced was wrong. 

Then, you also began to share your story. You grew up in Mississippi, where you were molested as a child and gave birth to a premature boy, who died soon after. Like me, you endured racism and hate. Learning about your childhood and seeing what you achieved inspired me. 

You made me start thinking about my future. It was you who made me believe a future was even possible. 

You made me start thinking about my future. It was you who made me believe a future was even possible.

And I loved the way you treated people. 

On your show, everyone was welcomed: Black, white, gay and transgender. 

It was amazing to me how much you genuinely wanted to change the world. You were so aware of all the bad happenings in our society, and you went through bad situations yourself. You wanted to help people get their stories out. When people would talk, you would look them in the eye. It was clear you cared. If they cried, you would touch their hand as a sign of support. You had a softness about you, but you were also very tough. 

As time went on, I started to lean into you and your show even more. See, at 15, I climbed up a tree. I had a rope in my hand, and I began to tie it around my neck. Out of nowhere, one of my brothers appeared and convinced me not to hurt myself. 

I was unhappy, and I was hurting. 

Shortly after, I went to juvie. I spoke up, but no one would listen to me about what really happened. So, I became very closed. 

Oprah, I didn’t open up to my therapist, foster families, teachers, or social workers anymore. I felt like I had no one except you. And you led me to books and writing. 

I began writing about my good days, my bad days, and my goals for the future. The books you shared with me pulled me out of a deep depression. These books gave me an escape from my reality and hope for my future. 

You introduced me to Maya Angelou, and I read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. I also read A Child Called It by Dave Pelzer. These books made me feel less alone. They made me feel seen. 

Without knowing me or speaking to me, you gave me the love I needed in my life. I never got in trouble again, and I never tried to hurt myself again. I even fantasized about one day writing a memoir and making it into your book club. 

After high school, instead of going to college, I worked for a publishing company. But when I got laid off after five years, I didn’t know what to do. In school, I learned the basics of cooking, and I always enjoyed it. So, I decided to try working in a restaurant. 

At first, I hated it. I started on a salad station, and I think I cried almost every single day when my girlfriend dropped me off. But then I realized the kitchen is a community. It is a bunch of misfits – each with their own stories – coming together for a common goal. The kitchen gave me a sense of family. I fell in love with it and realized I had a passion for cooking. 

I have worked in restaurants in Massachusetts, California, New York, and now I am in New Orleans. From Mexican to Indian to Japanese to seafood, I’ve worked with a variety of cuisines. After growing up on cereal, pop tarts, bagels, and frozen pizza, I now can cook myself a fresh, healthy meal. 

Briana is a professional chef.

While many say, I should be proud of myself, I grew up with you as my example. And your career was not just about what you could achieve, but rather what you could do for others. Now, at 31 years old, I feel a deep hole in my life because I have yet to help the next generation of foster children. 

So, just recently, I have begun to dream bigger than ever before. 

I have decided I want to try to create a kitchen that is like your show. Instead of cooking for patrons, I want to cook for at-risk youth and foster children. I want to teach them how to make healthy meals, and I want to make meals for them. After we cook, I want to enjoy the food with them and allow them the chance to share their stories. I want to be that person that touches their hand and looks them in the eye when they speak. In my kitchen, their voices won’t be ignored, and their stories won’t go untold.  

I don’t know precisely what to do or how to start, but I believe in myself. And that’s because of you. 

Oprah, as a teenager, I wrote to you over and over and over again, and I never heard back. I realize now that you receive so many letters, and it’s unrealistic to read all of them.   

But even if this one ends up unanswered like all the rest, it still feels good to write to you – to see my own evolution. 

When I was a teenager, I wrote to you because I desperately wanted you to listen to my story. Now, I am writing to you to let you know that you inspired me to make sure more children are heard. 

If you ever want to do dinner, I will cook. 

Thank you. 

Briana Lee
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