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Debi Lee, Managing Director of Children's Choirs of Southwest Missouri, has spent more than 3 decades teaching singing to, and instilling a love of choral music in, Springfield-area children.

Joan Collins is another local "unsung hero" who has devoted her life to serving children in the community, first as a longtime English teacher at Hillcrest High School, and later as one of the founders of Peace Network of the Ozarks, and as a member of Writers Hall of Fame.

RANDY: Joan Collins was born in Los Angeles. Her parents soon moved back home to Nebraska, but came to the Ozarks when Joan was in the third grade. A graduate of Stockton High School, Joan got her Bachelor's degree at Missouri State and her Master's in English, as well as some post-graduate work, at University of Arkansas-Fayetteville. She was a schoolteacher for 28 years, mostly at Springfield Hillcrest High School. But after retiring in 1991 she hadn't gotten teaching out of her system, and continued substitute teaching for another five years! What inspired you to become a teacher?

JOAN: I'm not sure it was a matter of "inspiration," because when I was growing up, generally women either became nurses or teachers. And I decided I'd rather be a teacher than a nurse, I think! So that's what happened. And sometimes I thought, "Hmm... why did I choose teaching?!" It's a very difficult job, and it is so important. It's kind of scary sometimes to think of the influence teachers do have on students. But now that I've been retired and look back, and see my students out in the community, and see what fine people did grow up there at Hillcrest High School, I'm delighted to say that I am a retired teacher.

RANDY: So maybe the most important thing that you were able to provide your students was a good future for them, really.

JOAN: Well, I hope that I was able to help in that. I know it comes from so many different places, it's hard to say. But I hope I could contribute some to that.

RANDY: Since retiring, Joan Collins has channeled her desire to make the world a better place for young people into helping found the Peace Network of the Ozarks, and creating opportunities for young writers with the local Writers Hall of Fame.

JOAN: As I watched what was happening in the buildup to the attack on Iraq, my advisor at the University of Arkansas had organized and conducted a Peace Network on the campus there at Fayetteville. And I called him up and I said, "Would you please come up, help us get organized? We've got to do something here." So he was very gracious and did that. And our first meeting was, I believe, in November of 2002. We had 65 people out at the Brentwood Library Community Room; all of them had come because they were so concerned about what they saw happening. And so we decided to go ahead and start the Peace Network. I was the president until about a year and a half ago, and then Dave Davidson is our current leader. But we still have a very active group of people. We have a website,

RANDY: So you kind of consider Peace Network almost like an educational organization?

JOAN: Oh, yes. We seek information, and we analyze and discuss it, and then try to inform other people, get their input, so that maybe we can make some difference in how all this turns out. We all care very, very much about what's happening to our country and to our young people, and to the world.

RANDY: Well, let's talk about your involvement in Writers Hall of Fame. How long have you been involved in that?

JOAN: I think probably around 1994, 1995, is when I joined that. And it has been a very exciting kind of experience, because it's allowed me to continue my work with young people, particularly with their writing and their understanding of the power of words. Part of our mission is to promote the joy of writing with young people as well as professional authors. It's a much different kind of thing than the Peace Network--it lets you see the hope that comes with the young people.

RANDY: And you have actually created a special program that creates an interface between published authors and grade school-age kids. It's called "Write to Become."

JOAN: Well, that has been very exciting for us. This is the second year of the project. We received a grant from Community Foundation, and our idea was to bring professional authors into classrooms or to organizations that serve underprivileged children. We thought that exciting mix of those two would work—because we've seen it work. We've had public readings of those young peoples' writings, and we've had overflow crowds this year. And I've just never seen so much excitement. As a matter of fact, I leave thinking, "Gosh, I should've kept on teaching!"

RANDY: Now, their work gets published in an anthology too.

JOAN: Yes, we're just completing the pages of that anthology. Probably we'll get it back from the printers in about a month and distribute it to the young people. It's a wonderful group of people that you work with, just as the Peace Network is too. I think that's what has been the most exciting thing about my life, is to have such wonderful, caring people who are always thinking about other people and how to make things better for them. That's what's important about life.

RANDY: Ultimately, why is this sort of dedication to community involvement so important to you?

JOAN: It's fulfilling, I guess! When you have an opportunity to work with young people like this, and to see that it does make a difference, it just is the most important thing that you can do.


  • Children's Choirs of Southwest Missouri