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Country star switches from feudin' to healin'

Country music singer Toby Keith, once known for his acrimonious feud with the country trio the Dixie Chicks, now spends his time raising funds to build a center to improve the lives of children receiving medical treatment and their families.

Courtesy of the Toby Keith Foundation
Toby Keith and a young friend smile for the camera. Keith is raising funds for 'OK Kids Korral,' a cost-free, convenient, and comfortable home for families of children receiving treatment for cancer in Oklahoma.

Back in 2003, country music singer Toby Keith was attracting a reputation for controversy following a high-profile spat with the Dixie Chicks over his penchant for patriotic lyrics. In 2002 Keith had recorded "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)," a response to 9/11 that became a controversial political statement.

In the beginning, he robustly defended his viewpoint – trading barbs with his fellow country music stars. A doctored image of the Dixie Chicks appeared for while on a backdrop at Keith's concerts that appeared to show them canoodling alongside former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

Then a tragedy close to home intervened to reset his priorities.

That was when a close friend and former bandmate’s two-year-old daughter succumbed to an illness. Shortly after that shock, Keith announced he was bringing his feud with the Texas threesome to an end, citing the death of the child as the moment he realized that there were more important things in life.

Roll the clock forward to 2012, and Keith is on the road to realizing the fulfillment of that focus by way of his Toby Keith Foundation, a charitable effort established in 2006 in the wake of the tragic case with the intention of supporting pediatric cancer patients. The singer was recently on site to mark the ground-breaking of the foundation’s main effort: a new lodging facility in the Oklahoma state capital intended to help assuage the challenges faced by children diagnosed with cancer and their families.

Between the burden of treatment and the associated travel to medical appointments, children often miss out on valuable time with family members, Keith says.

That’s where the OK Kids Korral – complete with day rooms, overnight suites, a kitchen, a dining hall, indoor and outdoor playgrounds, a movie theater, and a center for learning about cancer – is set to come in, promising a “cost-free, convenient, and comfortable home for families of pediatric cancer patients receiving treatment in Oklahoma.”

“The last thing a parent wants to hear is that your kid has cancer,” said Keith, a native Oklahoman to reporters at the ground-breaking ceremony on the grounds of the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center. “One of the parents usually has to quit work, your bills skyrocket," and parents end up spending "precious time" commuting back and forth to the hospital, he said.

So far, nearly $4 million has been raised by Keith's foundation in the quest to make the center a reality. Events such as the annual Toby Keith & Friends Golf Classic – which this year was timed to coincide with the May 18 groundbreaking of the Korral – are the chief sources of fund-raising income. The estimated total cost is about $10 million.

According to Keith's publicist, Elaine Schock, the golf tournament and an associated auction raised $664,000. The Keith camp lauded the effort -- which apparently exceeded the amount raised at last year's version of the event -- saying it took them "one shovelful closer" to completing the project.

In order to devote more time to the center, Keith has announced he is cutting back on the number of shows he performs. The 28,000-square-foot OK Kids Korral is earmarked for completion next year, probably in the fall.

“We’re gonna build it one way or another, if I have to build it myself,” Keith says.

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