Drill team keeps kids off deadly streets

CNN Hero Tawanda Jones

By Erika Clarke

CNN

CAMDEN, New Jersey (CNN) — Camden, New Jersey, is not an easy place for a kid to grow up in.

Just ask 15-year-old Destinee Williams.

“Camden has this reputation of being dangerous because you can walk outside at 3 in the afternoon and hear gunshots,” Destinee said. “Gangs and drugs are a huge deal. Kids get into gangs to feel safe so they won’t get killed.”

Unfortunately, Destinee has had to deal with too many killings in her young life.

“My father was murdered in Camden last year, and my cousin was murdered (last month),” she said. “In the last month, I know of at least three people getting killed. In Camden, I expect it to happen. I’m not surprised anymore.”

For many people, the violence in Camden can make it feel more like a war zone than an American city, but the battle doesn’t end there.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, about 42% of Camden’s population is living below the poverty line, making it one of the poorest cities in the United States. The New Jersey Department of Education reports that nearly 90% of Camden’s schools are in the bottom 5% performance-wise in the state.

“For too long, the public school system in Camden has failed its children,” New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said Monday, when he announced the state would be taking over the city’s schools. “Each day that it gets worse, we’re failing the children of Camden, we’re denying them a future, we’re not allowing them to reach their full potential.”

Camden may seem like a city without hope, but one of its native daughters is on a mission to change its downtrodden reputation and empower its youngest residents.

Tawanda Jones started a dance team, the Camden Sophisticated Sisters Drill Team, to entice young girls to stay off the street and do something positive with their lives. Over the years, she has incorporated boys into the team and also started a drum line program.

“People perceive Camden and its kids as garbage,” Jones said. “We have so many gifted kids. They want more out of life. There’s just nothing in our city to do. Therefore, what happens when a child has idle time and no positive way to channel that energy? They have to find something else. And it just may turn into the dark side.”

Through the drill team, Jones aims to teach kids about discipline, dedication and self-respect, things she believes are necessary to survive and thrive in this rough community and beyond.

“Whether you need it for work, you need it for school, you need discipline, period,” said Jones, 40. “Drill team is good as far as structure, because you have to be precise. You have to be on point.”

Jones also stresses education, as kids in the program have to keep a C average in school.

“If they get too many Cs, we put them on academic probation,” Jones said. “We don’t want to kick a child out because they’re not doing well in school, so on my days off I go to the child’s school just to correspond with the teacher. I’ll just make sure that the child is doing well or (see) what we can do on our end to help that child get to where she needs to be.”

Only 49% of children in Camden graduate from high school, one of the lowest rates in the state, according to the New Jersey Department of Education. But Jones said all the children who’ve participated in her program — more than 4,000 kids since 1986 — have graduated, and more than 80% of them have gone on to college or technical schools.

“I don’t think people really understand how important it is to have these children succeed as far as graduating from high school,” Jones said. “That’s a big deal in our city.”

In addition to promoting education, Jones makes it mandatory that children commit to 200 hours of community service a year. They also have to write an essay about how to improve their neighborhoods.

“You have to keep that community base,” said Jones, who the children call Wawa. “Keeping your neighborhood clean, helping the elderly, you bring that family feel back to that community. That is what Camden needs.”

Jones founded her program when she was a teenager and saw many of her peers getting pregnant.

“I was a teen mother myself, but I had a great foundation. My family was there for me,” she said. “They taught me how to love and respect myself, and more importantly, how to work hard. I saw that a lot of girls didn’t have any of that, and I wanted to help.”

Destinee joined the drill team after her father was killed.

“When my dad passed, I really didn’t know what to do,” she said. “The outcome of that was me to not act like myself. …

“CSS changed me a whole lot. It stopped me from going out in the streets, finding bad people to hang with. My grades now are not straight F’s anymore. I have a GPA of 3.0. I want to go to college and be a sports manager when I get older. … Miss Wawa is my second mom, she’s the best thing that happened to me in the past year.”

Taron Green was on the verge of joining a gang before he became a member of the drum line. He now mentors younger members.

“We’re in such a state of poverty and violence that it scares people from us when, honestly, we need the most help,” Green said. “The best way for me to describe Wawa is like, if this was Gotham City, she would be Batman.”

Jones, who often uses her own money to fund her organization, is still looking for a permanent place for her drill team to practice. She said she knows it’s an uphill battle to turn her city around, but she’s determined to do it one kid at a time.

“It’s bad. But it can get better. I believe that with all my heart,” she said. “These kids didn’t ask to be here. They didn’t ask to be put in this situation. But being that we’re here, we have to make the best of this situation, and it’s going to take everybody in this community to do it.”

Want to get involved? Check out the Camden Sophisticated Sisters Drill Team website at camdensophisticatedsisters.org and see how to help.

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