Angel of Mercy
The big heart of Shania Twain - who's never forgotten her humble roots - feeds thousands of hungry kids.
For too many years, young Shania Twain experienced the pangs of hunger. Now she's waging a war against it.
"My whole childhood, my whole school life, I basically went to school without a lunch every day. I often went to bed hungry," says Shania. "Food, for me, is a luxury."
"I definitely hid it at school," recalls the woman who became country's biggest crossover superstar of the '90s.
"Sometimes my Dad would make me a lunch of mustard sandwiches that I could take to school and that was enough. Sometimes I'd just tell people 'I'm not hungry,' or 'I forgot my lunch.' I was embarrassed."
Her hardships left a lasting impression. To ensure that children don't suffer the same fate, she's made feeding the hungry a personal crusade.
"I always had a mission to feed the hungry," she says. "My goal, even when I was a kid, was to find out who the hungry families were and to show up at their door with a freezer full of food. That's what I wanted to do."
Now that she's country's hottest star, she's finally able to fulfill that ambition. But this is no fleeting urge to do a good deed. Shania has mounted an organized campaign to battle hunger that an army general would envy. The game plan includes:
Royalties of her recording "God Bless The Child," are split between two organizations -
Second Harvest Kids Cafe in the U.S. and the Canadian Living Foundation.
Presenting each organization with a check for $50,000.
Donating a portion of all proceeds from T-shirt, calendar and poster sales.
Raising awareness by performing "God Bless The Child" nightly on her recent 166-date world tour.
Donating tickets to every concert for local food bank raffles.
Quietly contributing tens of thousands of dollars in private donations.
"Now, I'm in a position where I can help many families," she explains. "I want to be sure kids get this money, so I donate it specifically through Second Harvest Food Bank for Kids Cafes in America."
Shania's generosity is paying off. The money she's raised has helped launch 22 separate Kids Cafes programs across the nation.
"Shania's been one of our biggest supporters," says Carol Gifford, communications director for Second Harvest. "Throughout 1998 and 1999, Shania was able to raise an additional $250,000 for our food banks through the donation of tickets to her concerts. She's certainly been the most vocal celebrity participating in our cause in the past two or three years."
"Shania has played a pivotal role in helping us raise awareness about the issue," adds Martha O'Connor, executive director of the Canadian Living Foundation.
Even Shania's fans are getting into the act by taking the high-tech route through the Internet.
"We got 80,000 visitors to our website within the last month directly from Shania's websites," says Gifford. "She certainly drives a lot of interest."
"She's had a tremendous impact," agrees O'Connor. "The awareness that she's raised through her concert tour has resulted in others coming forward and making contributions, too.
"In Ottawa, one employee of a large computer company who went to a show, heard about our program, told her company and they donated $40,000."
Even Shania's crew is giving of themselves - literally. During recent concerts in Tampa and West Palm Beach, Fla., Shania dragged out a long-haired crew member and promised a $1000 donation for every inch of hair she cut off his head. By the end of the shows, the Second Harvest Food Bank was $12,000 richer.
"That's Shania," says Gifford. "She typically goes above and beyond. She's really helped us communicate the message that hunger exists in our country. She's the face of hunger that's been able to get past her youth during the times when her family was needy."
"Shania lends credibility," adds O'Connor. "She's such an eloquent spokesperson for the cause because it really comes from the heart."
Shania's mission is a deeply personal one that stems from an impoverished childhood. She hasn't forgotten the hunger pains that haunted her.
"We were poor when I was a child," Shania wrote in an open letter to her fans in a Canadian magazine a few years ago. "We didn't always know what, when, or where our next meal was going to come from. Or when the heat was going to get turned back on in the middle of a Northern winter.
"I have had some harsh lessons on the frailty of human life. But through it all, I still believe that love and happiness are the most important things and to never lose sight of them. Life passes us by very quickly whether we are happy or unhappy."
Music was one of her few pleasures. "We were extremely poor when I was a kid and I used to just sing and play guitar in my bedroom as an escape," Shania notes. "My parents got me out of the house, and I performed everywhere they could get me booked - every TV station, every radio station, every community center, every old-age home."
When Shania's parents were tragically killed in a car accident, life became even tougher. Only 21, she took on the responsibility of raising her two younger brothers and sister. She landed a job as a singer at the Deerhurst Resort in Muskoka, a six-hour drive from her hometown in Timmins, Ontario.
"The first house we moved into had no water," she notes. "I couldn't afford a place in town so I found this place in the country. There were no locks on the doors. I couldn't afford curtains. I bought all my furniture from Deerhurst at an auction.
"We had to take big coolers down to the river in our truck to get our water. I even used to do laundry there. It was terrible. But we stayed six months."
It was only after her siblings moved out of the nest that Shania turned her attention to Nashville. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Now Shania lives in a Swiss castle with her husband - and songwriting producer - "Mutt" Lange, and the world is at her feet. Over the past year, her star has enjoyed a spectacular rise. She's won countless awards - including the CMA's prestigious Entertainer of the Year and two Grammys - and graced dozens of entertainment, fashion and lifestyle magazine covers. Her album Come On Over has sold an astonishing 16 million copies. Her two top-rated TV specials captured record numbers of viewers.
And Madison Avenue has come calling. Cosmetic giant Revlon signed Shania to an exclusive contract and built a $50 million campaign around her glamorous look and her hit song "Man! I Feel Like A Woman."
But her lofty status as country music's reigning, radiant sex symbol - and all the royal treatment that goes with it - has not stopped her from remembering her humble roots.
Shania's heart was never bigger than at her hometown concert last summer. All the proceeds for the show were split between four charities, including the local hospital and the South Porcupine Food Bank.
"Shania's a godsend," says Mike Cootts, the food bank's president, who estimates that Shania's donations total more than $20,000. "She's certainly one who hasn't forgotten the people or the area that she came from. Her donations help us feed up to 600 families a month for a population of 45,000."
And Shania's generosity doesn't stop with the hungry. She regularly visits hospitals and meets children from the Make-A-Wish Foundation. After last April's Columbine High School massacre, Shania quietly visited injured teens in Denver.
"We do what we can," she said modestly, "to visit and help out."
Shania also performed at the Amnesty International Concert for Human Rights Defenders, as well as the Noble Peace Prize Ceremony last year.
But hunger remains her top concern.
"It's something that's personal to me," Shania said. "And it's an obvious choice. I support hungry children locally through the concerts. It's something I do everywhere I go in the world. There are too many out there who need money and need help.
"I'm now actually able to give back some of the things," says the superstar millionairess, "I've always dreamed of giving."
Shania isn't the only star lending a helping hand to charitable causes. Here's a sampling of the others who give of themselves offstage:
Vince Gill's annual celebrity basketball game helps Nashville's Belmont University, and his golf tournament, The Vinny, benefits Junior Golf.
Neal McCoy's East Texas Angel Network cares for kids with cronic or life- threatening illnesses.
Willie Nelson is the farmers' friend -- he founded Farm Aid in 1985. Alan Jackson has kicked in with Farm Aid as well as many children's charities.
Garth Brooks gave $1 million to Olympic Aid, which delivers supplies to children living in war-torn countries. And he's among the many stars who've helped Feed The Children.
Tim McGraw's annual Swampstock fund-raiser benefits local programs in his hometown of Start, La.
Among Reba McEntire's many charities is Habitat For Humanity.
Billy Ray Cyrus is one of several stars who lend a hand to the Make-A-Wish Foundation, which grants wishes for children with terminal illnesses.
Clay Walker supports the March Of Dimes and the Buckner's Children's Village, a Texas organization that helps abused kids.
Tracy Lawrence hosts a celebrity softball game and concert in his hometown of Foreman, Ark., to assist local parks and raise money for academic scholarships.
Hal Ketchum has raised thousands of dollars to fight multiple sclerosis.
Kathy Mattea has hosted fundraisers to benefit the homeless.
Mark Collie, himself a diabetic, hosts the annual Mark Collie Celebrity Race For Diabetes Cure. Kix Brooks, Ronnie Dunn and Aaron Tippin have also lined up behind diabetes research.
A cause close to Mary Chapin Carpenter's heart is CARE, which develops self- help programs and emergency relief for the poor.
George Strait has turned personal tragedy into public philanthropy. After his daughter died in a 1986 car accident, George founded the Jennifer Strait Memorial Foundation, which benefits several children's charities.
Country Weekly, Jan 25/00 cover