Annjohnnette Collins lucked out when she got the job of recreation program coordinator at the James O. Jessie Desert Highland Unity Center. “This is really the best job anybody’s ever had,” she said. “I’m a people person. I love children.”
Collins is surrounded by youth most days — from kindergarteners to high school seniors — as she moves in and out of the various and vital roles she plays in our community: She’s in charge of the Unity Center drill team and runs the hip hop and line dance programs. She arranges guest speakers who talk about restaurant etiquette or how to balance a checkbook. And when Spring Break Camp starts Monday, she’ll be running that as well. Outside of her work at the Unity Center, she also put together the Black History Parade’s Town Fair in February, and serves as vice president of the Palm Springs Unified School District’s African American Parent Advisory Council (AAPAC).
The people who make Palm Springs
like no place else
Collins moved here from San Francisco in eighth grade. Needing a different environment, she relocated to be closer to her father. She quickly discovered the Unity Center could offer her a world that had been inaccessible to her in the Bay Area.
“With the fee being only $5 here, I could actually join a community center,” she said. “You get to meet everybody, and you get to feel a part of the community. Not only that, you get to learn something from the people that come through here if you’re open to it.”
Leading the drill team is familiar for Collins. She was captain of the team herself, and once she graduated from Palm Springs High School she kept coming back to volunteer, until her father suggested she get paid for her efforts.
“So I went up to James O. Jessie and told him, ‘My dad said either you have to hire me, or I’ve got to find a job,’” she recalled. The day after she turned 18, Collins completed the paperwork and became an employee. She wandered a bit — spending a few years trying out other jobs, including dump truck driving — but eventually made her way back to the center, where she knew she belonged.
Now part of the Unity Center leadership team, Collins stresses the importance of community in her work. It was the community that raised her up when she was at her lowest, she said, explaining that at the Unity Center and elsewhere there were always people looking out for her. Some of those same people are now looking out for her children, and Collins makes sure to look out for others’ children as she works with them.
“Lots of parents work, so I was on the emergency card for kids on my drill team. I could call and find out if their grades were slipping. Parents really appreciated it. It was like a big old village.”
Collins notes that as the pandemic played out, it grew more difficult to create those deep ties, and people became less reliant on neighbors as they began to isolate from COVID-19.
“They’re working. They’re trying to survive,” she said. “I can see their struggles because I had them. I know how it is to get help, to give help.”
The loss of many elders she looked up to as a teen also played a role in that lost sense of community, as well as a sense of security, knowing that they were looking out for the children. Collins is trying hard to fill that role now through her work on the parent advisory committee. As a champion of the children, she’s making sure their voices are heard.
“Each child has their own struggles and setbacks,” she said. “I never shared my struggles, but I have to get involved to make sure my kids succeed. Because if I’m dealing with it, how many more parents are out there dealing with it but don’t have an outlet?”
Adults in the community also benefit from Collins’ efforts, as she works to help them understand complex topics such as mortgages and financial security. A few years ago, she started taking classes to learn about her credit score and how to apply for a loan, and she now teaches those around her what she learned to spread institutional knowledge instead of gatekeeping it.
“Knowledge is power. If it’s beneficial to me, it’s beneficial to the next person,” she reflected. “I had to teach myself, so I want to make sure there’s someone there to teach the next person.”
Paying it forward is a central theme when speaking with Collins. She cherishes spending time at the Unity Center with local youth and doesn’t take for granted the impact she has on their lives.
“You gain the respect of all these little children,” Collins said. “So many people poured into me. It made me who I am today. It’s just a blessing to be able to share that with the next person.”
Get to know Annjohnnette below.
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Occupation: Recreation Program Coordinator at the James O. Jessie Desert Highland Unity Center
Neighborhood: Desert Highland Gateway Estates
How long have you been in the desert? Since 1985
What brought you here? I came down from the Bay Area to come live with my dad.
What keeps you here? The affordability. I wanted to move back to San Francisco, but I thought about how expensive it is and the violence, and I decided to stay. The desert grew on me.
Do you have family here? I have a lot of cousins out here. My big Momma, her husband was a Crawford, so there’s a lot of Crawfords! And even people I’m not directly related to, they’re all my cousins.
What’s your favorite time of year here? Summer because I don’t like the cold weather, even though I like wearing jackets. I love when the sun goes down in the summer. It’s cooler, but still sort of hot.
How do you beat the heat? When I came down here in the eighth grade I thought, “This is child abuse!” I stay inside. We play basketball and do drill team inside the gym. I’m not going to go run around when it’s 100 degrees.
Do you have a personal philosophy by which you live? The philosophy of community — keep the kids moving up and keep helping the next generation.
What’s your favorite place to eat? Kobe’s. When my dad first took me there I was so overwhelmed, but anytime I got to pick a restaurant, I would pick there. It was a big deal when my oldest daughter got to eat at Kobe’s for the first time. She had to work her way up and earn it. I told her, “You’re not going to embarrass me at Kobe’s!”
What’s the biggest issue facing our community? Lack of resources. We have a lot of elderly people here who can’t get to the store.
What’s your favorite thing to do or place to go in the desert? I love to go riding ATCs in the desert, and I love the outdoors and swimming.
What would you tell people about Palm Springs that they might not already know? A lot of people don’t know about the James O. Jessie Unity Center. It’s not just a center, it’s a family. Everybody’s welcome. People see us from the tram. They’ll come in and say, “I’ve been coming to the desert for 20 years. I never knew you guys were here! I saw the big grassy area from the tram and had to see what it was about!” They call it a hidden treasure. So many people from across the city used to come before the pandemic hit. They’d do pickleball. It was so jam-packed in here.
What’s your guilty pleasure? I don’t think I have one! I’m boring. Sometimes I get stuck in a routine.