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Unsung Heroes: Eric Travis and Kelly Dame[Part_2]

http://ozarkspub.vo.llnwd.net/o37/KSMU/audio/mp3/unsunghero_3186.mp3

7:30AM: Eric Travis is Youth and Young Adult Minister at Christ Episcopal Church in Springfield. He was nominated because of his work with youth, particularly his passion for working with them. 4:30PM: Kelly Dame, longtime choir director at West Plains High School, was nominated for the sacrifices and efforts she has made in order for her small-town students to travel the world and see themselves as better citizens of humanity. She has dedicated her talents to not only producing music recognized on an international scale; she also sees it as her mission to take that student who feels he or she is a "nobody," and help them see themselves as "somebody."

(Note: The audio for the extended interview with Kelly Dame can be heard following this report.)

(Sound of students entering choir room)

I'm Jennifer Moore. To profile today's Unsung Hero, I traveled to West Plains, Missouri, which also happens to be my hometown.

It's here that, 5 days a week, about a hundred students crowd into a large music room adorned with three decades' worth of photographs, awards, and quirky mementoes.

A life-sized statue of Elvis greets the students as they enter.

They take their places on the risers, and direct their their attention to the woman standing before them. Each one, especially the freshmen, silently prays she won't call on them for a dreaded solo.

(Sound: "One, two three, Aah!" Singing...)

Kelly Dame was nominated as an Unsung Hero because of her 34 years of sacrifice and tireless efforts to inspire "her kids," as she calls them, to become better citizens of humanity.

"I hope I've made them better people," Dame says. "I hope I've made them giving people. That's one the reasons my kids don't just sing. We ring bells for the Salvation Army. We work for Habitat for Humanity. We've planted trees for Earth Day for when we're all gone. We've contributed to tsunami relief. Every year, we work for Hospice, which cares for terminally ill people. So it probably doesn't have to do with music. It has to do with, I hope I made you a better person."

Over the years, her choir has released numerous CDs and won countless contests.

They've traveled to China, Russia, Romania, Finland, Hungary, and Italy. Kelly says she travels to teach her students that people are basically the same, regardless of skin color, creed or place of origin.

This year, she's taking the choir to Poland, where they will visit Auschwitz, the notorious Nazi concentration camp.

(Sound: choir singing)

"I'm not a singer," she says, smiling. "My kids sing in spite of me. I can't play the keyboard. I'm a terrible singer!"

And she's not just being humble. She's actually not known for her singing voice, and she got a "D" in piano keyboarding class.

But what she lacks in vocals and keyboarding, she more than makes up for in directing.

When she takes her place before the choir and raises her arms in anticipation of the first note, what follows is pure brilliance.

(Sound: Choir singing. "Now! Give me St. Mark's in Venice now!")

Kelly Dame is especially known for reaching out to students who struggle, due to social, financial, or family problems.

I was told by others that, to illustrate this, I should talk to one student in whose life Kelly Dame made a difference: Charles "Chuck" Gipson. He sang in her Concert Choir from 1993 to 1997.

Finding him, however, was another issue.

First I heard he was stationed in Germany with the Army, then someone said he had moved to Alaska.

I finally managed to track him down on a cell phone at the Mexico-California border, where he works with the US Customs and Border Patrol.

"I mean, she knew we didn't have a whole lot of money," he said. "And I remember she gave me a pair of shoes once. And she even paid for one of my dentist visits once. I hurt my tooth or something. And not a lot of people know the softer side of Kelly Dame because she comes off as kind of different, and kind of strict. But she's really, really a soft, caring person inside."

Chuck's parents wouldn't let him join the choir because it required after-school practices, and he didn't have a ride home. So, Kelly Dame said she would drive him personally home.

"I remember, even after she'd stay there until ten o'clock at night, she wouldn't be afraid to give me a ride home. And it was probably about an hour round trip at night," Chuck recalled.

She also helped him raise money through various fundraisers so he could go on the choir trip to Europe his senior year.

Dame: I've received, you know, some awards, but I don't even think that's it. It's when I get an email from a former student or a letter from a parent saying, "I'm so glad you had my kid in choir, because I don't think they would have graduated." A friend of mine, who taught at Kickapoo High School, Connie Belue, once said, "When I can take a nobody and make them a somebody." When that window opens up in their life, that "I can be better. I can be better. I can be a success." That's it. It's not some great moment at a concert. Probably, if that were all it was, I still wouldn't be here.

Moore: Can we know how long you intend to keep going?

Dame: Well, you know, when I get up someday and I don't say, "Gee, it's great, I'm going to school today," then I know someone else needs to be doing it. That's my answer. There will come a time, obviously, when I can't do it any longer. And, hopefully, I will have the good grace to know when that is! (laughter)

(Sound: Choir singing, "If music be...sing on...")

One of the pieces the choir is working on in advance of their next big contest begins with the lyrics "If music be the food of love, sing on."

In this town, many do not look forward to the day in which Kelly is no longer able to teach music.

But until then, sing on, Kelly Dame.

(Sound: "Sing on!")

Reporting from West Plains, I'm Jennifer Moore.