Larry LaRue

Tacoma woman kept Hilltop well fed, and safe from pit bulls

Joyce Collins, in her Tacoma home’s “hat room,” will be honored Saturday as the Hilltop Hero of the Year.
Joyce Collins, in her Tacoma home’s “hat room,” will be honored Saturday as the Hilltop Hero of the Year. Staff photographer

After Joyce Collins and her family moved into their Hilltop home in 1979, there were two things neighbors could rely on.

The kitchen was always in full production mode, and the living room was never empty.

In the ’80s and ’90s, Collins and husband James decided to take back their Tacoma neighborhood from crime, drugs, even pit bulls, and they held meetings in their living room.

“They worked tirelessly with neighbors, the city and the police,” said Susan DeRome, a friend who nominated Joyce Collins for a 2015 Hilltop Heroes award. “They strategized how to return Hilltop to a safe place to raise their daughters. Others joined their efforts and, over time, an organization was born.”

The organization was the Hilltop Action Coalition, a community-based nonprofit working “to mobilize and empower diverse individuals, families, businesses and other public and community organizations to build a safe, clean, healthy, resilient and united community.”

Those goals were discussed and agreed to in the Collins family living room.

“We had City Council members come over, policemen, firemen, reporters,” Collins said. “We talked about everything that needed to happen, and everybody went away with a full stomach.”

During one stretch, pit bulls roamed the neighborhood, and Collins was angry that children and seniors were at risk. She talked to city officials about it and, each time she saw a dog running loose, she called the Humane Society.

“They come out and take the dogs, and one by one we got them off the streets,” Collins said.

And the drug users?

“Those kids became friends instead of enemies, they came and helped us,” she said. “How? By me feeding them, that’s how. We’d have 150 or more at the house some days, and those kids noticed what we were doing.”

“We were taking care of our neighbors, our kids. And I was happy to help take care of them.”

While Joyce and James Collins wanted their neighborhood safe, their approach included reaching out to lost kids who seemed to have been rejected by nearly everyone else.

James Collins died on Jan. 11, 2010. He and Joyce had been married more than 42 years.

“After I lost James, I tried to keep doing what he’d done,” Joyce Collins said.

Now 65, she lives in the same house, near 19th and L streets. The Hilltop Action Coalition, founded a decade after they moved in, is where she spends time each day as a volunteer.

And when the Hilltop Street Fair is held Saturday at People’s Park, she will be honored as the Hilltop Hero of the Year in a 2 p.m. ceremony.

“She probably deserved it 20 years ago,” said Frances Lorenz, co-chairwoman of the Hilltop Heroes committee. “Sometimes, we’re a little slow to recognize people who give so much of themselves.”

Joyce and James Collins’ daughters, Trica Ayers and Tabitha Collins, will be at the ceremony honoring their mother. Remembering the past 30 years in the Hilltop is easy for them.

“I remember those block parties and my dad’s ribs,” Tabitha Collins said. “State senators stopped by, the police, people from the city. If mom called 911, half the department responded. She fed everybody. She adopted everybody.

“She kept it going, even after dad died. She’s a great mom, a great woman. She still does things for the neighborhood.”

Ayers said there was nothing her mother owned she wouldn’t share or give away.

“She’s awesome. If she has it — even if it were her last — she’d give it to you. My friends, me, she’d take off a coat she was wearing, give it to you and tell you she had another coat at home,” Ayers said.

For years, Joyce Collins worked in the child development center at Joint Base Lewis-McChord. One day, Tabitha Collins recalled, her mother took a bunch of those kids on a field trip.

“She brought them all to the house,” Tabitha Collins said, laughing. “The kids treated it like an amusement park, running up and down the stairs, opening doors to all the rooms. They loved it.

“One little guy hid behind the front door. He didn’t want to leave. All the kids loved Mrs. Collins, and they loved being in Mrs. Collins’ house.”

Apparently, so did much of Tacoma.