By Lesley Messer Christina Tapper Mark Dagostino
February 18, 2008 12:00 PM

Reality TV, says Oprah Winfrey, is ready for a reinvention. “So much of what we see is about people getting for themselves,” Winfrey tells PEOPLE, “and I wanted to see a show about the flip side of that—about people competing to give versus get.”

Say hello to Oprah‘s Big Give, the new ABC series (premiering March 2) that pits 10 contestants—everyday people “who have had incredible experiences and want to use their lives to give back,” says Winfrey—against each other to see who can give money away the most effectively. “To be handpicked by Oprah to give back to America? It doesn’t get any better than that,” says contestant Rachael Hollingsworth, 32, a former gang member who escaped her neighborhood to graduate college. Well, it could: The winner will get $1 million.

The Oprah Winfrey Show design expert Nate Berkus hosts the show; the judges are Malaak Compton-Rock (Chris Rock’s wife), NFL star Tony Gonzalez and chef Jamie Oliver, all known for their charity work. The idea for the series grew out of an episode of her daytime show about “paying it forward,” says Winfrey. “I hope that viewers will see something of themselves in the contestants. That’s what this is really about—feeling inspired and asking yourself, ‘What would I do?'”

For an exclusive first look at Oprah‘s contestants, turn the page.

1. Rachael Hollingsworth, singer, 32

“I always thought, ‘If Oprah could do it, I can do it,'” says the Brooklyn native, who, like Winfrey, survived childhood abuse. She’s now a college grad. “When we met, I was like, ‘You know my name!’ I was sobbing.”

2. Angelo Adams, Iraq War veteran, 30

The ex-Army captain would donate his winnings to a school for veterans’ children he attended in Pennsylvania. He wants to teach his two kids, he says, “how important giving is.”

  • 3. Cameron Johnson, millionaire businessman, 23
  • At 12, he made $50,000 in a year selling Beanie Babies online, then earned a fortune in the dot-com world. Oprah, says the Roanoke, Va., native, “is a self-made entrepreneur—that’s what I wanted to be.”

4. Brandi Milloy, marketing director, 24

The beauty-pageant veteran from Arizona has an appetite for competition: She once beat out male rivals to win a pie-eating contest and ate a live worm on a dare. She’s done volunteer work since she was 12. “This show is right up my alley,” she says.

5. Marlene Snipes, Amtrak attendant, 38

The Chicagoan gives back as a motivational speaker and aerobics instructor—she even makes her own birthday about other people. “Every year for the last three years, I’ve been hosting my family for breakfast on my birthday,” she says. “I give them gifts!”

6. Kim Prentiss, sports-marketing executive for the Tennessee Titans, 40

“My girlfriends were getting Botox, getting their boobs lifted, worrying about looking older” when they hit 40, says Prentiss. “I thought, ‘I’ve spent so much of my life worrying about myself that I want to make the next 40 years about making a difference.'”

7. Stephen Paletta, real estate developer, 43

He paired up his daughter’s elementary school in Bedford, N.Y., with one in Rwanda so kids could share artwork and letters. The program also raises funds for the Rwandan school. “Kids can change their opinion about the Third World very early on,” he says.

  • 8. Eric Klein, Founder/CEO of CAN-DO, 38
  • After the 2004 tsunami, “I called a buddy and said, ‘Let’s take $10,000 and go to Sri Lanka,'” says the Californian, who also pitched in after Hurricane Katrina. “Oprah has the same attitude.”
  • 9. Carlana Stone, TV producer, 39
  • An accident left her paralyzed as a teen, but the Glendale, Calif., resident skydives, flies planes and scuba dives. Now she’s living out another dream: “I’ve been trying for years to have Oprah bring me on as a producer!”

10. Olusegun “Sheg” Aranmolate, premed student, 24

After coming to the U.S. from Nigeria at 18 with just a duffel bag, Aranmolate has earned two degrees in biology. He also works for a Nigerian foundation that helps get kids medical care.