Monday, Oct. 21, 2013 | 6 p.m.
Tears welled up in everybody’s eyes today as superstar singer Shania Twain explained that her own heartbreaking childhood was behind her charity Shania Kids Can as she opened her first clubhouse in Las Vegas. She promised a second will follow here, as “Las Vegas has become my second home,” and then she’ll eventually roll out others across the country.
It was a series of heart-tugging, emotional moments as Shania greeted the kids of her program at Tom Williams Elementary School in North Las Vegas. Shania Kids Can is her foundation that creates activities in elementary schools to assist students who fall into the gap between a dysfunctional personal life and qualifying for social-service intervention.
“These are children who are often victims of abuse and/or neglect who can be difficult to detect. These children are left to face the school day without support and struggle on their own to cope with the negative impact their personal-life suffering has on their social and educational development,” Shania said.
I sat with a dozen of the kids in their new Shania Twain Clubhouse that Shania had created and decorated with inspirational messages, photos, drawings and a board for the children to leave her messages. She promised to reply to them all. She also promised that musicians from her band at Caesars Palace where she headlines at the Colosseum would visit to teach them music and instruments. Shania also is picking up the costs of regular dental hygiene visits there.
Shania and the kids hugged each other individually and as a group circle as they presented gifts to her: flowers, a keepsake spread and a boxed book of letters from each of them. Our thanks to Denise Truscello for the wonderful and uplifting photos.
Shania told the small group of educators and teachers as the kids sat spellbound with open mouths inches from the star: “It’s overwhelming to see all of this in person and see it materialized because it’s the first time I’m standing physically in the room, in the space that we created. I was just looking at my quote here: ‘It’s neither wise nor faith to leave the destiny of any child to luck.’ I consider myself one of the lucky ones, so that is why I wrote that. I didn’t have a support group. It’s not that I didn’t have a school that didn’t care, but they just weren’t organized to properly help the children like myself who really needed it.
“I had a talent, and I was very lucky to have that talent. I was even luckier that I had a parent who nurtured that talent and had the drive. To be honest, a huge part of where I succeeded, and I say unfortunately, was relying on luck — chance. This is what we don’t want to happen to our children. Just from my heart, I am doing this because I understand children who need that extra support. I’ve been there, I’m speaking from experience, and I’m doing it from experience.
“I always had a dream. I always wanted to help children who were living a very similar life to what I had growing up. Not all children in our schools received the same love, nurturing guidance and stability in their personal lives. Many young students are less fortunate and endure daily life without the personal care that meets even the basic nutritional, emotional and hygiene needs essential for proper physical and mental health, and in some cases goes unnoticed by others.
“I was often embarrassed going to school — if I went to school — because I wasn’t clean, my hair was dirty. Maybe we couldn’t afford shampoo. It sounds like a very basic thing, but it happened often. You just had to go to school with dirty hair. Or I wouldn’t have the right seasonal clothes and I would go to school improperly dressed, and that was embarrassing and I was humiliated and teased by the other students.
“Often there were times I would go to school and not be able to participate in some of the field trips because we couldn’t afford the dollars, so I was just left out. Simple as that, I wasn’t included. That had a great affect on my self-esteem, and I really did feel like an outcast a lot of times. Another thing was going to school hungry. When I walked into this school this morning, the first thing I noticed was cooking; I could smell food.
“The teachers often heated up their food in the microwaves, and I remember that going to school because kids bring bagged lunches. The cooked food, the smell of it drove me crazy because, first of all, I was hungry. I often went to bed the night before without a dinner, going to school without breakfast, and I didn’t have a lunch. So it was torture walking into a school and smell food — that I was going to have to go through that day hungry. I just couldn’t focus and concentrate properly on my studies.
“The main reason I wanted to incorporate my program into schools is because this is where I think that the support and structure already exist; wonderful people who are willing to do it, and just need a bit of help getting organized, and that’s what I’m hoping to help you do. The funding targets kids struggling with their personal lives and the risk of falling in the gap between dysfunctional home life and qualifying for child-services intervention. This is a big problem. Kids are falling under the radar and not being helped by child services and not getting what they need at home. These schools, I believe, can fill that gap for our kids.
“I started a couple of pilot programs on my own in Canada eight years ago. We had great success, and so now this is our first stage one here. I was welcomed so warmly to Las Vegas right from the get-go, and I didn’t hesitate to make my dream come true; giving back to kids like myself right here in my second home in Las Vegas. The goal is to help hundreds of thousands of kids.”
Shania told one heartbreaking story of how as just an 11-year-old girl she had to take over the role of an adult: “I went to the dentist with one of my younger siblings, and his teeth were all rotten because my parents neglected to recognize that he was having a problem with his teeth. So all of his teeth had to be pulled out that day at the dentist’s office. My mother was not there with me. At 11 years old, I had to stand there and hold his hand while he got all of his teeth pulled out. It was traumatizing for me and for my brother. All of that was so unnecessary. We can’t always expect our children’s home lives to give them the support they need. When we realize that that’s not happening, we need to step in and make it happen.”
After posing for photographs with the kids and school staff, I sat with Shania for a quiet one-on-one interview:
You said it was a dream come true. So what did you flash back to when you said those words?
It’s a dream come true because not that I would ever want to go back, but if I did have to go back, this would be the dream scenario. This would be a savior for a child like me. I would have been over the moon to have a place to go to when I didn’t have winter boots in the winter. All I was wearing were running shoes and rubber boots; I couldn’t go outside and play because I would freeze. I had to stay inside.
Where do you stay inside as a kid while everyone else is outside playing? It’s an awful feeling. You feel left out, you’re embarrassed, you don’t want to tell the other kids why you’re not outside playing. Sometimes I’d make up excuses and say, “Oh, I’m not feeling good.” If I had a clubhouse like this, I would have had a place to go with purpose, a place where I felt I belonged. I didn’t need to give an excuse as to why I was there; I’m here to be productive.
You didn’t have this as a young girl, so the question is when did you grow up and discover you could achieve whatever you wanted?
You know, I did vow to myself very young, still in primary school age, that I would make it. I was determined to make it; making it meant being able to buy a house, pay my bills, eat and just be self-sufficient; independent. That would have been enough for me to say, “Alright, now I’m going to start helping kids like myself.” I would have done it on a smaller scale if I hadn’t become as successful as I am. Now I have the power of celebrity, high profile; I want to use that. I want to get up there and speak, and more people will listen, and it is my story.
How did you stop yourself from crying from all these memories and emotions this morning?
I needed to be distracted. Distraction works very well. As I was coming up the hallway, that’s when the tears were really starting to well up. But then I read the inspirational words on the wall and then I saw the letters from the kids, and I thought, “This is really happening! They’re really doing it!” I just became excited, satisfied and proud, and that distracted me from getting emotional and sad.
So this is the first in America, and will you do more in Las Vegas?
I am considering doing a second one in Las Vegas because I do spend a lot of time here. A lot of people ask me why here? It’s because I’m here. I want to see what’s going on. I can pop in and ensure that the dream is being fulfilled. My husband Fred is doing a great job on a managing level, but it’s my vision, and I have to make sure that I remain involved. So it’s logical for me to do it somewhere where I can be physically, physically visit and get to know everyone a little bit better.
You told the story of your brother having his teeth pulled out. Did you grow up at that very moment?
Oh, yeah. When your parents are not fulfilling their role as the adult caretaker, the child has to do it. There’s no choice. That’s what happens. In this program, I can guarantee you there are definitely some children who are forced to be the adult in their home life. They’re not being supported at home, so they don’t know how to cope with it emotionally. They’re doing it out of necessity, they are surviving, they’re coming to school. Teachers don’t understand what’s going on at home, their friends don’t understand, but they’re still coming to school maybe without bathing properly or without clean clothes or with teeth rotting or not getting enough school.
Or they’re hungry and can’t focus, but they can’t explain it to anybody because it’s embarrassing. So at that time when that happened to me with that sibling, having to be the parent and adult, it was traumatizing for me. First of all, I couldn’t believe that his teeth were that neglected. The dentist said right then I’ve got to pull all of his teeth out, they’re not salvageable. I just realized at that moment, “Wow, we’re just entirely neglected here,” and it makes you angry.
Did you ever get to change that home situation?
No, that was my youth all my primary years. For some families, they go in and out of those phases, but for some kids, it’s always like that. The kids don’t necessarily speak up. One child said she was shy, but wasn’t shy about her personality; she was shy about her feelings. Some feelings for kids like myself run so deep, how can you possible explain yourself?
Hopefully what the clubhouse will do, even though these kids are probably older than their years than they should be having to be forced into situations that are beyond their years, this clubhouse is allowing them to be children, their actual age and will help fill that developmental gap. This is going to help them hold on to that youth and cope with the fact that they’ve been forced to grow up too fast.
It was time for another group hug with the kids, and the down-to-Earth glamorous superstar simply showed that her heart is bigger than all of her fame and fortune.
Robin Leach has been a journalist for more than 50 years and has spent the past decade giving readers the inside scoop on Las Vegas, the world’s premier platinum playground.
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Transport yourself to the opulent and excessive Roman Empire at Caesars Palace. But the ever-changing Caesars Palace is far from ancient. The hotel and casino is constantly raising the bar for what visitors can expect in a Vegas resort experience.
Caesars Palace features 3,348 rooms and suites in five towers, including the new luxury boutique Nobu Hotel and Restaurant, which opened Feb. 4, 2013, in the totally remodeled Centurian Tower. Caesars features 129,000 square feet of gaming space, including the Strip’s largest poker room and a 250-seat sports book. Other amenities include about two dozen restaurants, a four-level shopping mall, four pools, a spa, Pure and Poetry nightclubs and Pussycat Dolls.
Dining options include restaurants from world-renown chefs Guy Savoy, Wolfgang Puck, Bobby Flay, Gordon Ramsay and, on Feb. 4, 2013, Nobu Matsuhisa.
You never know what characters you’ll run into at Caesars with regular performers like Jerry Seinfeld, Bette Midler, Elton John and maybe even the emperor himself.