On 31 August, the famed television host, 69, and the Game Plan star, 51, announced the launch of People’s Fund in Maui in an effort to aid those affected by the natural disaster in the town of Lahaina. The two A-listers hit the ground running with a hefty donation of $5m each to start.
Following the announcement of the fund, both Winfrey and Johnson were hit with negative commentary about their efforts as individuals with $2.8bn and $800m net worths, respectively. Fans were frustrated over the stars asking their audience to donate when they were sitting on personal fortunes much larger than their own.
One commentator said: “Girl you got some nerve asking us working class people who can barely afford to put food on the table for our families to donate…why don’t you ask your millionaire/billionaire buddies to help.”
About two weeks after receiving criticism, Winfrey addressed the situation during an interview on CBS Mornings to promote her new book, Build the Life You Want: The Art and Science of Getting Happier, with co-author Arthur C Brooks.
“I will say this. I came out of this experience with so much more compassion for young kids, because I was thinking, what if I didn’t really know who I am? It will take you out,” Winfrey said. “So all of the online attacks, lies, conspiracy theories, really took the focus off of what was the most important thing, which is the people of Maui.”
The author also talked about her inspiration in creating the fund, noting how she had been in contact with individuals in the affected areas and experienced a desire to do more than just pass around essential materials.
Winfrey continued: “Then I started talking to people and people really wanted their own agency. I thought: ‘Whoa! That’s the idea. Getting the money into the hands, directly into the hands of the people - set up the end structure for that.’”
She admitted that Gayle King’s son had sent her a link to an article on Dolly Parton’s 2017 support fund started for the victims of the Gatlinburg, Tennessee, fires. Inspired by Parton, Winfrey and Johnson thought they would donate their own money as the first contributors to the fund and then continue to ask others to add donations as well.
“I was so excited. I was so excited about it, and then I got up the next morning, and I saw all of this vitriol, and I was, like: ‘Whoa, what happened here?’” Winfrey noted. “This is what I want to say. I want to say that, in the beginning, so many people were calling, asking: ‘Where do we give our money to?’ So I thought, I’m going to give people a place to give it.”
Winfrey remained confident in her efforts to place money directly in the accounts of the struggling residents who lost so much due to the fires. However, she thought the criticism seemed “sad that we’re in this state in our country”.
“Putting money directly in the hands of the people is a significant thing, and the model that has been created, I will say that as of today, 2,200 people have been cleared and verified, and those people are gonna get a notice from the People’s Fund of Maui and are gonna have the money put into their account,” she remarked.
The wildfires, referred to as the “Hawaii firestorm,” began in Maui at the beginning of August. In its destruction, the fires swallowed the entire town of Lahaina. According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), an estimated 2,200 structures were taken in the area, including historic buildings and residential homes.