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Aguilera's visit, story lift spirits at women's shelter

Monday, December 22, 2003

By Mackenzie Carpenter, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Maybe she didn't exactly look like someone who would donate $200,000 to Pittsburgh's domestic violence shelter: a tiny young woman with long black hair frosted red at the tips, and wearing skin-tight jeans, an enormous newsboy's cap and a shy smile.

Pop star Christina Aguilera, center, poses for a photo with executive director Shirl Regan, board members, volunteers and their children at the Women's Center and Shelter of Greater Pittsburgh during a visit yesterday afternoon. Her mother, Shelly Kearns, at far left, is a board member.. (Martha Rial, Post-Gazette)
Click photo for larger image.

But Christina Aguilera -- former Wexford resident and international pop star -- has done just that, and yesterday she paid a surprise visit to residents at the Women's Center and Shelter of Greater Pittsburgh in Oakland. For nearly two hours, the diminutive singer toured the center, signed autographs, wrapped presents and exchanged hellos with a startled group of 18 women and 23 children who are currently under the shelter's protection.

"I said, 'Oh my goodness,' when she walked in," said one woman resident, who asked that her name not be used. "They didn't tell us who was coming and then there she was. My 15-year-old adores her and she could hardly say two words when she saw her standing right there."

Aguilera, 23, who now lives in California, stopped by the shelter during a holiday visit with her mother, Shelly Kearns, who still lives in the area and is on the board of the center.

"I'm so happy and proud to be a part of this," said Aguilera, who met first with about 100 staffers, volunteers and their families, posed for pictures and greeted children in the crowd before going upstairs to meet the residents. "It feels good to be in the room with all these people who have donated all their time to this."

This past summer, Aguilera auctioned off clothing, concert tickets and other items to benefit the center during her most recent tour to promote her album "Stripped." Aguilera has spoken publicly about the abuse she and her mother suffered at the hands of her father, Fausto Aguilera, and in one song she wrote that's on the album, "I'm Okay," she describes a little girl "living in a war that she called home."

"Every time my father's fist would put her in her place/Hearing all the yelling I would cry up in my room/Hoping it would be over soon."

"It's one of the most personal songs I've ever done," Aguilera said during an interview after meeting with the center's staffers. "It pinpoints what my mom went through and what I went through. It's been really therapeutic for me."

Aguilera's father, who was in the military, moved his family a lot during her childhood, and whenever they arrived in a new city, her mother "would find out the phone number of the nearest shelter and keep it on a scrap of paper in her back pocket" -- just in case.

"Shelters are so important. I've seen that in my life firsthand, and I always thought that if I was ever in a position to make a difference, I wanted to do something to help," Aguilera said as she sat in a child's chair in the shelter's playroom, helping to wrap a few gifts for children staying at the center.

"And for me, this is just the beginning. It's important to get the word out about domestic violence and its effects."

"It's about giving back," added her mother, who credited therapy and education about domestic violence with helping her gain independence. "I've been there and I want women in this situation to not be afraid to speak out, that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, a whole new life that's better than you even imagined."

Aguilera's financial help came just in time, said the center's executive director, Shirl Regan, who was invited to meet the singer last summer when she appeared at Mellon Arena.

Funding cuts from United Way and other major donors this year -- mainly because of the struggling economy -- forced the center to lay off 14 staffers this past summer, Regan said. But the infusion of cash from Aguilera has enabled the organization to stabilize its finances for now, she said.

Besides providing temporary shelter for female victims of domestic violence and their children, the center provides a 24-hour crisis hot line, ongoing individual counseling and support groups, advocacy and support services. It also provides school and community education and professional training on the origins and effects of domestic violence.

The center, which has won many state and national awards, is able to offer services to victims free of charge because of financial support from individuals, organizations and businesses. But maintaining that funding is a constant struggle.

"This is one of the best things that's happened to us in a long time," said Regan. "We could not be here today without what Christina and her mother have done for us."

In April, Aguilera added a link to the Women's Center and Shelter Web site from www.christinaaguilera.com, which allows Aguilera's fans to learn more about domestic violence and the center's services and how to find referrals if they need help. Center officials said they've received an average of 194 referrals from Aguilera's Web site each month.


Mackenzie Carpenter can be reached at mcarpenter@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1949.

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