Winter Philanthropy

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It's late night on a bare soundstage at Universal Studios, and Eva Longoria Parker is standing in front of a camera, armed with nothing more than a cup of coffee, as a bevy of stylists and makeup people swirl around her.

She's been working all day -- right now she's wrapping a promotional shoot for ABC -- and in just a few hours she'll board the red-eye for Washington to speak at a news conference on Capitol Hill with the secretary of labor and the interior secretary, launching a campaign for the National Museum of American Latinos.

She's as glamorous as can be, but she doesn't take herself at all seriously. She makes quips about her appearance, the lighting. Then, when the director tells her to be more enthusiastic, she laughs: "You don't get more enthusiastic than me!"

That's for sure. And nowhere is it more apparent than in the enthusiasm she lavishes on a host of charities, from a new national Latin American museum that's to be built in Washington to Padres Contra El Cancer to the Mexico-based Foundation of Rafa Marquez and her own organization, Eva's Heroes.

"I love charities," she says, and above all "I love to work with charities where it's not about a hand-out -- it's an educational system that's going to teach you to cope with life. I don't want to segregate people; I want to integrate people into the community."

It's always tempting to be skeptical about an actor's charity work. But for Longoria Parker, this is no performance. She's been an activist since she was 3 years old, sitting under her mother's desk in a classroom for special needs children.

One of those children was her oldest sister, Liza.

Later, back in her trailer near the set of "Desperate Housewives," wrapped in a chocolate-colored blanket, the actress remembers what it was like to live with her sister.

"I was born into Liza's world," she says, "which was fantastic and educational because everything revolved around her and her needs. My mother would go to school with her every day just to make sure she was OK and comfortable and I would go with her."

Longoria Parker's mother Ella became a teacher's aide and "then she taught kids with special needs for 25 years." When Eva was 11, "My mother asked me to volunteer at an event. I thought she meant I was going to a job -- I didn't even know that volunteering was what we already did. I thought it was how everybody lived."

Eva's experience growing up with mentally challenged youngsters left her with a deep sympathy for them.

"My sister was my hero growing up," she says. "It was a blessing to watch her overcome every obstacle -- tying her shoes, putting on a shirt, getting out the front door. And yet she still had a job and would come home on the bus by herself and help with dinner. You could only imagine the hurdles she encountered every minute of the day."

Today, Liza is 41, has a job, lives in a group home, has a boyfriend, a bowling league and still works. As for Eva, she too is working -- working with utter devotion to help others overcome obstacles, which is why The Hollywood Reporter has named her its Philanthropist of the Year.

More than anything, she has become associated with Latino causes, and was a supporter way before she became Gabrielle Solis on ABC's "Desperate Housewives."

"I've known her since she arrived in Los Angeles, before she was famous," says David Damien Figueroa, director of the Mexican-American Legal, Defense and Educational Fund, which honored Longoria Parker for her work with Latino causes Thursday. "She has always been an activist. Sometimes people become famous and leave the activist person behind; Eva is an activist who just happened to become famous. She has raised millions and millions. There has never ever been any Latino-American who has raised as much."

Longoria Parker is also the national spokeswoman for Padres Contra El Cancer (Parents Against Cancer) and she's founded Eva's Heroes, a nonprofit organization that works with the Special Olympics to provide after-school programs for kids with developmental disabilities.

This year she and her husband, Tony Parker, hosted the Par Coeur Gala in support of the Make-a-Wish France Foundation at the Hotel Meurice in Paris, where they auctioned off a day with Longoria Parker on the "Housewives" set as well as a visit with San Antonio Spurs basketball star Parker at a home game.

Longoria Parker isn't the first star to use her celebrity to help a worthy cause, but she's one of the few Latinos so publicly to claim her heritage at the very height of her career.

"People say, 'Aren't you afraid of being pigeonholed?' " she says. "I'm not on this earth to care about what roles I get. If I'm helping people and creating some kind of change, that's way more important."

She sips her coffee out of a cow-shaped mug given to her by a child dying of cancer. A textbook, "Anything But Mexican," sits on the coffee table, one of the many books she has to read at California State University, Northridge, where she's working toward a master's degree in Chicano Studies.

"I am so different from who people think I am," she says.

She's especially passionate about Latinos in Hollywood, believing Latinos have to control projects, as well as star in them, in order to change their image. It was to further this that Longoria Parker became the producer and host of the National Council of La Raza's Alma awards.

But she's going much further than award shows: She's also producing a documentary, "Harvest," about farm-worker children, mostly Latin Americans.

"These kids are stuck in a cycle of poverty," she says. "These are not jobs that are being taken away from other Americans; there's no American who wants that job. My friend George Lopez always says, 'If an immigrant took your job, then your job sucks.' "

Longoria Parker is still putting together the money for the documentary, but she's confident she'll find it. "I'm good at raising money," she says. "I spend at least 80% of my time fundraising. And the rest of the time, I work on this little TV show."

As the spokeswoman for Padres Contra El Cancer, Longoria has raised $4 million for children and families of Latinos afflicted with cancer.

"People ask me if she's just a figurehead," says Elvia Barboa, CEO of Padres. "In no way is she that. In Los Angeles, 85% of the kids with cancer are Latinos because there's a huge problem with compliance -- taking medicine, getting rides and showing up for appointments. Eva fell in love with our mission. She's not doing this for fame. She's doing it because she's compassionate."

Longoria Parker remembers the first time she went to Children's Hospital in Los Angeles to meet with the group. At the time, she was starring in "The Young & the Restless."

"I'm walking through the halls and I see a little 4-year-old with a baby IV stand, holding his mom's hand," she recalls. "This 4-year-old was comforting his mother; his mother was not comforting him. I could see that these kids have so much more strength than the parents. The kids are very educated about what medications they're taking and what treatments they're doing. The parents can't get one sentence out without bawling. I immediately said, 'I'm going to help.' "

Longoria Parker pauses when asked what her mother thinks of her philanthropy. "She expects it," she says. "She doesn't think I am reinventing the wheel. She says, 'Of course my daughter is doing this. It's her responsibility to give back.' "

Of course, when you're Eva Longoria Parker, giving back isn't quite the same as it is with the rest of us. One moment, she's visiting kids in hospitals, the next she's at the White House.

She was there recently with George Lopez and Jimmy Smits to host Festival Latina, the latest in an ongoing music series. The crowd was too big for the East Room, so the performance took place in a giant tent on the mansion's South Lawn.

Longoria Parker spent most of her time either hosting or backstage, just peeking from behind a curtain. Then she saw Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor -- and threw protocol out the window.

"I went up to her, I was so excited," she says. "I found her and said, 'I've been waiting to meet you.' And she said, 'I'm really proud of you, Eva. Can I have a photo?' "

And suddenly Longoria Parker and Sotomayor were arm-in-arm, dancing together, swirling across the floor to the melody of Marc Anthony's "I Need to Know."
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