Robert Gallagher
June 25, 2015 02:00 PM

More than two decades have passed since Kristy McNichol, who starred in Family and Empty Nest, stepped away from her life as one of the biggest child stars of her day in the hopes of leading a quiet life of her own design.

Although she rarely gives interviews, she spoke to PEOPLE this week about her passion for singing in the Los Angeles Valley Community College choir and her support for the Los Angeles Valley College Foundation. “Music can make such a difference,” McNichol says. “It has in my life, and I’ve seen how it transforms others.”

“I enrolled in the Los Angeles Valley College Music program four years ago because I wanted to sing in choir,” says McNichol, 51. “I always liked singing. When people come together to sing, it’s very relaxing and spiritual and healing. So I kept coming back.”

The students, she says, “come from all walks of life. Many are immigrants. Some have financial struggles and are under a lot of pressure.”

McNichol connected with the choir director, Glenn Carlos. “He brings a roomful of people together to sing. Not only does he teach them to sing, but he also teaches them self-respect. I see them uplifted when they leave the class. That carries over and can help them stay in school and finish their degree and keep them from going down the wrong path.”

“I got involved with the LAVC Foundation, which raises money for scholarships, for instruments for students who can’t afford them, for sheet music, even for dresses when someone can’t buy one for a concert appearance,” says McNichol. “I never want them to lose the music program due to funding because that would be the saddest thing in the world. Music really helps young people.”

“Being young and a teenager is tough, I know,” she says. “I didn’t go to a regular school when I was their age. I had a tutor. But it’s so much more fun to be with other people. That is something I never got to experience.”

“We sing all sorts of music – musical theater, pop, modern, a little bit of everything.” she says. “We give concerts and even did a flash mob in the library and sang the song ‘Summer Nights’ from Grease. It was so much fun.”

One of her favorite things? “The kids don’t treat me any different,” she says. “The greatest thing is they don’t know who I am at all, and I love that. I come in my sweats and warm up and it’s an amazing experience.”

Today, McNichol cherishes her private life. “I didn’t have that for so long in my life, I really enjoy that now,” she says. “I stepped away from Hollywood to find myself. It was a decision I had to make alone. And what I have found for myself is unbelievable. There are all sorts of life experiences for me to explore, and music is one of my passions. People ask me if I’d ever return to acting, but you only have a certain amount of time in your life. I want to use my voice in a positive way because I believe in school music programs.”

As for what’s on her playlist, she says with a laugh: “I listen to everything from Celine Dion to the Stylistics to Christina Aguilera to Joni Mitchell to [Mark Ronson and] Bruno Mars‘ ‘Uptown Funk.’ I love it all.”

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