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You know from the sound that you’re nearing something going on in the hardscrabble Whitman Park neigh-borhood of Camden. It’s the unlikely sound of drums – loud, powerful, booming. A rather unusual sound for one of the state’s poorest cities, these drums are being played outdoors.

Then the children come into view. Some, on a brief break from what goes on inside the city’s old water tower, dubbed The Tower, are enjoying the outdoor air before they return to the demands of the day. And yes, demands is one of the operative words. So are the words pride, fun, discipline, delight, safety and joy. Camden Sophisticated Sisters (CSS) is a lot of things to a lot of Camden area kids.

Tawanda Jones

Tawanda Jones

Tawanda and Robert Jones, both 40, have transformed the lives of hundreds of Camden girls and inspired boys as well. Their mission is nothing less than to rescue these kids from a world that might overwhelm them, maybe even destroy them. Their mission, they will tell you, is being accomplished literally step by step.

Camden Sophisticated Sisters is officially a youth drum and dance corps, one with carefully choreographed movements and drill team precision. The fact that it’s composed of kids as young as 3 and all the way through 18 means that it takes hours and hours, then months and months, of hard, intense work. It takes patience, skill, common sense and emotional savvy too, to keep these 322 kids motivated and marching four days a week for several after-school hours a day. And there is no superstructure to keep the organization going, nor are there ever adequate funds. CSS and its male component, Distinguished Brothers of CSS, struggles to survive, let alone thrive.

Tawanda and Robert Jones met in high school in Camden. They fell in love and married in their teens. Life was never easy, but they had each other and a lot of dreams. They still do.

As a teenager, Tawanda participated on her own drill and dance team until it lost funding. That loss made her realize just how much a similar program could mean to the young girls of Camden. “I’ve always been taught to give back,” says Tawanda, best known as “Wawa” to the youngsters. “Doing something for kids seemed a good way to do that.”

In November 1986, Tawanda bravely launched CSS, certain of only one thing: she wanted it to be an organization that empowered girls like herself and gave them a sense of purpose and dignity. It relied on a form called “stepping,” which combines elements of military drills with contemporary jazz, hip-hop and even ballet.

“In stepping, the body almost takes the place of the drum as clapping and stomping the feet produce the dance. It’s easier seen than explained,” says Tawanda, “but once you experience it, you don’t forget it.”

Tawanda’s late grandfather stepped forward to provide the original uniforms for the girls, in the process establishing a sense of identity and pride. Now there is an annual scholarship awarded in memory of Walter “Dynamite” Green Jr., who contributed 80 uniforms and three drum sets to give life to CSS.

Neither grandfather nor granddaughter could have imagined its growth. About two dozen young men are a small part of the troupe, and hopes are their numbers will increase. The Almighty Percussion Sound Drumline of 15 drummers is under the same umbrella.

Two of Robert and Tawanda’s sons, Robert Jr., 17, and ReQuan, 9, are involved in the organization, and daughter La-Quicia, 23, is the spirited practice leader/choreographer, under her mother’s watchful eye.

In order to stay in CSS, the youngsters must follow strict rules and guidelines. “This is as much a character-building and learning experience as it is a drill and dance corps,” says Robert, who also steps up as a drummer at the four-times-a-week practices.

Student members must maintain a C average and must sign on to do community service. They are always expected to practice demeanor that befits girls called “Sophisticated Sisters.” That means everything from posture and manners to unity and harmony.

“If there’s something going on – tension in the air – we get together and work on it in what we call our Unity Circle,” Tawanda says. “These are kids, so rivalries happen. But we address them before they get out of hand.”

Likewise, if a member has trouble in school, Tawanda and Robert, both of whom have demanding day jobs in social service agencies working with the disadvantaged, make it a point to arrange school conferences. “Many of our parents either can’t or don’t get involved, but everything that affects these kids affects us as a group, so we’re there to help them,” Tawanda says.

The drum and dance corp includes boys and girls ranging from age 3 to 17

The drum and dance corp includes boys and girls ranging from age 3 to 17

Their involvement seems to be helping: while only 49 percent of Camden children graduate from high school, Robert and Tawanda report that everyone who has participated in their program – more than 4,000 since its inception – has graduated. And 80 percent have gone on to college or technical schools.

“We’re deeply committed to keeping our kids on the right track,” says Tawanda, brushing off any accolades. Finances are an ever-present challenge. While there is a registration fee of $85 and monthly dues of $10, many of the Camden youth can’t pay. So the Jones family absorbs the cost from their own pockets and hopes for contributions and gifts.

Last summer, the Camden County Prosecutor’s Office’s gave the drill team a grant for a full set of summer dance outfits for 150 girls. Camden County Prosecutor Warren Faulk noted the true gift to the community is that CSS is the sort of organization that prevents and controls crime in a city rife with it.

Happily, there has been wonderful news for CSS, like when TV’s “Dancing With the Stars” invited an ensemble of eight to perform on air last April to Beyoncé’s hit “Get Me Bodied.”

An appearance on “Good Morning America” followed, which resulted in a message to the team from Beyoncé herself: “To see these young girls have this unity really inspired me,” she said in her video message.

And in September, there was a thrilling trip to the Miss America Scholarship Pageant “Show Us Your Shoes” Parade in Atlantic City, where the team strutted its stuff down the boardwalk.

More recently, Tawanda was named  a Top 10 Finalist for CNN’s Hero Award. She was nominated by a former CSS member, Destiny Bush, who is now a doctoral student at Washington State University.

But perhaps the most important tributes come from the girls themselves. Diayne Jones, 8, who wants to grow up to be a doctor, says, “There’s all this fighting in the city, but here, everything is good.” And Shayla Inram, 9, says she feels special because she’s a CSS girl. “I learn new things every day here, and I especially learn to be polite.”

At the end of a drill, with hands clapping and feet stomping to the beat of the drums, the young girls shout one of their anthems in perfect unison:

“It is possible. It is never impossible. If I can believe, then I can achieve. It is possible. It is possible. It is possible.”

November 2013
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