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Stephen Paletta wins ABC's 'Oprah's Big Give' reality series, $1 million


By Christopher Rocchio, 04/21/2008 

Stephen Paletta was revealed to be Oprah's Big Give's winner during last night's finale broadcast of the ABC reality competition series.

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The 43-year-old real-estate developer from Bedford, NY claimed the show's $1 million grand prize -- $500,000 to keep for himself and $500,000 to use for additional gives to others.

"I'm in shock," said Stephen after his victory.  "It was such an incredible honor and privilege to be part of this show and to be chosen as the biggest giver with all of these wonderful people."

Stephen defeated Cameron Johnson, a 22-year-old entrepreneur and dot-com millionaire from Roanoke, VA, and Brandi Milloy, a 23-year-old pageant queen from Chicago, IL, to take home the Oprah's Big Give title.

"Cameron and Brandi made it so tough," said Oprah's Big Give judge Jamie Oliver after Stephen was named the winner.  "We couldn't just base it on this task alone -- we had to dig back over the weeks.  I know that regardless of this show, you're going to go on and do such wonderful things in the future."

Oprah's Big Give's finale began with the three finalists meeting Oprah Winfrey at Chicago's Union Station, where she explained the rules of their final mission, dubbed "The Shirt off Your Back." 

The three would work as a team and have 48 hours with no seed money to give in Oprah's hometown.  While they'd be working as a team, each finalist would be judged individually when they faced the judges for the last time.

The final mission commenced and each of the finalists wanted to step up.  Stephen called his friend Bob Muzikowski -- the founder of Chicago Hope Academy -- and the three finalists arrived at the preparatory school.  Bob told them the school needed an athletic field, with a cost of $100,000. 

"Stephen looked through his Rolodex, called an old friend and kind of forced this school upon us," said Brandi.

Stressed out, Brandi suggested helping Shriners Hospital for Children as the three began to brainstorm. She and Cameron suggested having every Miss Illinois titleholder perform, however Stephen was not impressed.

"The reality is, you've got to think a little bit bigger.  This is the biggest challenge we have," said Stephen. "If worse come to worst, let's set that up as a fallback. But to tell me that's what you want to do as the biggest give, it's a little bit insulting. It's kind of like, 'Guys!  We have to do better than that."

With only 40 hours left they still had no concrete ideas and continued to banter about suggestions, but time continued to pass with nothing planned.

"I am so stressed out right now.  This is the Big Give finale and we have no ideas," opined Brandi.  "Zero.  Zilch.  I just want to get out of here."

Jamie than arrived for an update and didn't like what he heard.

"To be honest, you ain't got nothing now -- nothing very interesting," Jamie told them.  "[Cameron's] entrepreneurial. [Brandi's] incredible with people. [Stephen's] kind of a bit of everything. So split the group into those attributes.  Don't overcomplicate. You have 36 hours. Be realistic and over deliver. Don't go for something too big and underdeliver.  You'll look like bloody idiots."

They took his advice and decided to back Stephen's idea to help Chicago Hope Academy.  Cameron called in some money from friends and also got in touch with Blue Man Productions, which offered to donate $100,000 to the school and a performance by Blue Man Group.

Cameron and Brandi weren't happy Stephen told the Chicago Hope Academy kids about the Blue Man Group performance because he didn't have any hand in planning it.  Brandi described it as "selfish."

Prior to serving the Chicago Hope Academy kids a special luncheon, Cameron and Brandi instead traveled to Shriners Hospital for Children.  Stephen secured $60,000 for the academy while Brandi convinced Anthony Reyes, a local chef, to donate a free cooking class to the kids at Shriners.

Stephen served lunch at the Chicago Hope Academy -- by himself -- before the Blue Man Group performance commenced.  Once at the theater, Phil Stanton, one of the Blue Man Group founders who donated the $100,000, wanted to meet Cameron.  Alas, Cameron was stuck in traffic with Brandi and said he might be late.

"This is the big reveal.  This is what we're giving the Chicago Hope Academy, and you guys don't even have the decency to be there when we show up?" said Stephen after Brandi suggested he start the show without them.  "Blue Man Productions is donating over $100,000 plus the show.  You've got to show these people respect and show up on time. It's an embarrassment to me, and it's an embarrassment to Oprah's Big Give."

The Blue Man Group performed with Oprah's Big Give's three judges -- Jamie; NFL star Tony Gonzalez; and philanthropist Malaak Compton-Rock, who is comedian Chris Rock's wife -- all in attendance.

After the show, the donations were revealed and included $110,000 to put toward baseball fields; $50,000 to go toward music and arts programs; 15 brand new guitars; and a Baldwin upright piano.

"It's unbelievable that they put that together in 48 hours," said Bob. "We had no idea they were coming, and to help us like that is just beyond anything we dreamed of."

The finalists then went to Shriners, where Anthony gave his cooking lesson while Cameron and Stephen left to spend an extra $10,000 that Cameron raised on toys for the hospital's kids.

The three finalists then returned to Oprah's Big Give headquarters, where they were met by the seven previously eliminated contestants -- Angelo Adams; Olusegun "Sheg" Aranmolate; Rachael Hollingsworth; Eric Klein; Kim Prentiss; Marlene Snipes; and Carlana Stone. 

Cameron, Brandi and Stephen also received their final remarks from the three judges.

Before the winner was revealed, actress Jennifer Aniston dropped by with a surprise -- the winner would be receiving $1 million; the other two finalists would receive $100,000 each; and the seven previously eliminated contestants would each receive $30,000.

Stephen was then revealed to be the winner.

(Photo credit Adam Larkey)

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