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From singer, life lessons at eye level


The classroom wasn’t as packed with television cameras and people in suits this time. Most of those little chairs that make a grown-up feel like Gulliver in Lilliput stayed empty.

Shania Twain opted not to use one either, instead sitting on the floor with a few youngsters at Tom Williams Elementary School in North Las Vegas last Tuesday.

Her first visit in October was more ceremonious. The small classroom brimmed with media and school district administrators attending the debut of Twain’s Shania Kids Can Foundation.

This return visit to the “clubhouse,” on a hot day as the school year winds down, still drew a pair of TV cameras and made time for photo ops. But there was also more back and forth.

The country-pop star learned the students were interested in everything from computers to law enforcement to singing.

“It’s a good thing to do if you’re shy, because it brings you out of yourself,” Twain said of the latter.

As the formalities thawed, the students had questions, too. “How old are you?” one asked.

“I’m 48. I’m about your grandparents’ age. I’m older than your parents.”

“Where do you live?” asked another.

“I live all over the place.”

Twain’s commitment to this school is arguably more impressive for her lack of Las Vegas ties. She sings about 60 shows a year at the Colosseum at Caesars Palace and isn’t officially contracted beyond December’s end of a two-year contract.

Her Kids Can program is tiny in the larger philanthropic world. About $75,000 was budgeted this year for Williams, helping about 20 youngsters at the lone U.S. school site, which joins two in Canada.

The Elton John AIDS Foundation, established by Twain’s fellow Colosseum star, invested about $7.3 million in grants last year. Andre Agassi’s foundation has raised about $92 million since 1995 and built an entire school campus.

“We need to expand,” Twain says. “We need people to come and give us millions of dollars so we can take this nationwide and provide more across the board.”

The easier way to do a foundation is to funnel money to existing charities. Launching a program from scratch is tougher, but the psychology of Twain doing it this way is no mystery.

“I’m getting more personal reward out of it, so I suppose that’s a big part of it,” she says.

“It’s a custom program. It’s personally customized by me,” she adds with a laugh, “only because I’m basing it on my own experience. That’s what I can share. It’s what I know.

“I’m sort of an expert underprivileged kid.”

Last October, the singer shared stories with the children about her own hardscrabble childhood. About going to school dirty and hungry, or watching her little brother have all his teeth pulled.

“I wish they’d had this program when I was in school,” she says. “It would have helped me enormously.”

As it turned out, Williams is already a school with all students eligible for free and reduced-cost lunch programs. At another school, Principal Jennifer French says, more of the funding might have gone to nutritional programs.

And Williams is also a Clark County “Zoom school” with an extended school year and extra resources for programs such as English-language skills. By the time Kids Can arrived, Williams already had worked its way up from the school district’s dreaded one-star ranking.

The Kids Can room became more of “Here are some people that I know are checking in on me. And I can go to them if anything comes up,” French says. The “clubhouse” served as everything from a place to “regroup” during a bad day to one that unveiled career possibilities through guest speakers and field trips.

The bridge between school and home can include bringing Spanish-speaking parents up to speed about magnet schools, or soccer sign-ups. It isn’t as visually dramatic as building physical schools. For now, the cameras will have to settle for a ’90s pop star in heels dropping by a couple of times a year to pass out hugs and encouragement.

“I can’t redo my childhood, but I would like to be able to change some other kids’ lives,” she says.

Contact reporter Mike Weatherford at mweatherford@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0288.