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Whitney: singer with a big heart

I believe the children are our future, teach them well and let them lead the way

–Whitney Houston (Greatest Love of All)

As the world mourns the untimely death of international pop icon Whitney Houston, broadcast media continues to rehash the 48-year-old’s rise to fame, public battle with drug addiction and tumultuous marriage to entertainer Bobby Brown.

But these portrayals are just one side of the Newark, N.J., native.

Like her powerful voice, Houston was a multifaceted woman whose world did not start and end in the entertainment industry.

The former teen church choir member–who died Saturday night in a fourth-floor room at the Beverly Hilton, possibly from combining alcohol with the powerful anti-anxiety drug Xanax and a warm bath, will be laid to rest Saturday. Invitation-only services will be held at the New Jersey church where she grew up. Whitney was also a social activist and philanthropist whose fundraising abilities helped a long list of organizations.

Houston was particularly interested in helping children, and the words from her song the “Greatest Love of All” probably aptly sum up her efforts.

Born Whitney Elizabeth Houston on Aug. 9, 1963, she began to follow in the footsteps of her mother Cissy Houston by singing in church at age 11.

At 14, she was singing backup, first with Michael Zager’s band on the single “Life’s a Party,” and then the next year with Chaka Khan on her single “I’m Every Woman,”

Years later in 1992, she would remake the song on the blockbuster “Bodyguard” soundtrack.

But before that, in the early 1980s, Houston would spend a stint as a fashion model. A fashion photographer, who saw her at Carnegie Hall singing with her mom, helped her segue into that industry.

She was one of the first women of color to appear on the cover of Seventeen magazine. She also appeared in layouts for Glamour, Cosmopolitan and Young Miss.

And it was during her years as a popular teen model that Houston’s other side began to emerge. While modeling, she refused to work for agencies that did business in South Africa during its apartheid era.

A few years later in 1988, she transformed that activism into the beginnings of an economic weapon. She was one of the performers at a 1988 concert in London to celebrate the 70th birthday of then-still-incarcerated South African freedom fighter Nelson Mandela.

That concert added significantly to the international pressure being brought to bear on the South African government, and would play a key role in Mandela gaining his freedom.

Houston would reconnect with Mandela in October 1994 during a White House dinner given by Bill Clinton, and before performing in the Rose Garden told the assembled guests: “This performance is very special to me because in 1988 I sang in honor of Nelson Mandela the inmate, and tonight I sing for elected president, Nelson Mandela.”

The following month, she traveled to South Africa where she performed in Durban, Cape Town, and Johannesburg in the Concert for a New South Africa.

Proceeds from the concerts were donated to South African children’s charities. On meeting Houston again in Johannesburg, Mandela famously said he was there “merely to polish her shoes … we love her so much.”

In 1989, the singer formed the Whitney Houston Foundation for Children, which aided sick and homeless children and worked toward the prevention of child abuse. The organization also worked to teach children to read, and built inner city parks and playgrounds.

The year before creating her foundation, Houston performed at Madison Square Garden, and raised more than $200,000 for the United Negro College Fund (UNCF). This relationship would be a long-term one. In addition to that concert, Houston appeared on two Lou Rawls Parade of Stars Telethons (1987, where she performed and in 1988 where pop star Michael Jackson was honored and she sang the Negro National Anthem.) In 1990, she was honored by the UNCF for consistent giving to the Frederick D. Patterson Scholarship Fund.

In 1997, the versatile entertainer raised more than $300,000 for the Children’s Defense Fund through the HBO concert Classic Whitney, Live from Washington, D.C.

Perhaps most illustrative of her charitable actions is the money her foundation donated to the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey in Newark.

“We had just opened the unit and were in need of money. The next thing we knew, we had a donation of $110,000,” remembers registered nurse Kate Falciani, RN, who was on duty the day that Houston’s mother and other friends came in for a special check-presentation luncheon at the hospital, which serves inner city youngsters, many of whom have no health insurance.

Falciani said the money was used to purchase much-needed equipment for the new pediatric intensive care unit, and she also recalls thinking: “How nice of someone with her celebrity status to come back and remember her roots.”

Most recently, the singer, songwriter, producer and actress teamed up with sister-in-law Patricia Houston to create a line of scented candles. Inspired by a trip the two took to Israel a few years ago, the candles are made of 100 percent soy that melts into a shea butter oil you can use to moisturize your skin.

A portion of the proceeds from the candle sales benefit a Teen Summit mentoring program Patricia started in 2007 through the Patricia Houston Foundation. The organization is designed to “Rebuild, Restore and Repair” the lives of young adults. Held annually, the summit provides teens with opportunities to participate in educational workshops and hear motivational speakers.

One year Whitney even attended the summit.

In addition to helping children and youth by donating to causes that supported them, Houston got even more personal about helping when she brought Nicholas Gordon, a now 22-year-old, so-called ‘secret son,’ into her life and home.

According to the website, Gordon and her biological daughter, Bobbi-Kristina, grew up together and were apparently inseparable.

To see Saturday’s live coverage, go to: