Tawanda “WaWa” Jones was just “a kid” when she started a drill team that has given thousands of children a refuge from the tough streets of Camden.
“If this was Gotham City, WaWa would be Batman,” said Taron Green, 27, who credits Jones with saving his life. “She comes to the rescue of everyone and asks for nothing in return.”
Jones and her high school sweetheart Robert, who is now her husband, started Camden Sophisticated Sisters (CSS) in 1986. They had 300 girls. Over the 27 years of its existence, the Joneses have held fundraisers and used their own money to help 4,000 children. To include boys, they created Distinguished Brothers of CSS (DBz) and The Almighty Percussion Sound Drumline (TAPS).
In a city where less than 50 percent of the students graduate from high school, the members of CSS have a 100% graduation rate. The mission of the organization: “To motivate, educate, discipline and empower our youth through the structure of a drill team.”
“I can’t lose another baby to the street,” said Jones, who works full time as an advocate for handicapped adults.
She was a teenaged dancer and member of a drill team herself when a woman organizing a drill team at a city youth center asked Jones to take the lead. She remembers the woman said, “The kids seem to follow you and you have a big mouth.”
When the city dropped the drill team’s funding, the kids turned to Jones.
“That next weekend about 100 kids and some parents showed up at my house,” said Jones. “They said they wanted me to get the city to continue the program. I told them I didn’t know what to do. I was a kid, too.”
Her grandfather was sitting in his car reading his Bible when he overheard her and told her that she knew exactly what to do and was more than capable to do it. So the teenager started Camden Sophisticated Sisters. Her grandfather, Walter “Dynamite” Green, Jr., bought the uniforms and a couple of drums.
She still composes uplifting chants for the groups. They step, dance, chant, drum and march. And in the course of learning movement and music, they learn discipline. Jones leads by example. Every time the group has a challenge, she finds a way to overcome it.
To raise money, the group does what is called “coin drops.” “We walk around the community, block off a street and perform and people put money in the bucket. We go from one area of town to another,” said Jones.
She charges $85 per year registration, but never turns down a child who can’t pay. Besides, the money doesn’t begin to cover the travel, uniforms, teachers and other opportunities and lessons the children receive.
“We didn’t have a place to practice for years,” she said. “We practiced outside my house, under the underpass, in the park or at another place offered by a parent.”
Today, the groups rehearse inside the city’s water tower, which Jones said has mold and toilets that hardly work. “We pray for good weather because half practice inside and half outside.”
The guys in the neighborhood warn her when a gun fight is planned so she can cancel rehearsal. Still, she is blessed to see up close the amazing accomplishments and changes made by young people with incredible challenges.
Destiny Bush, 23, said she finally got the courage to join CSS when she was in middle school. Immediately, she said, “WaWa became my mentor, psychiatrist and second mother.”
Destiny remembers the first time she heard the word “college” and how she and some girls asked Jones, “What is college?”
“When I was in eighth grade, WaWa took all of us to Temple University to watch a step show. She paid for all of us. I was watching the show and at that moment I said, ‘I’m going to college.’”
When it was time to leave for college, Destiny was reluctant to go because she couldn’t afford the things she needed. “I went with only the clothes on my back,” she said
But the drill team raised money and gave it to Destiny and she said, “Then I knew this is like a sisterhood.”
Still, Destiny struggled academically. At one point, she called Jones crying hysterically, saying she was coming home.
Jones flew out to Stockton, Ca. to check on Destiny and tell her about other options such as getting a tutor, possibilities Destiny didn’t even know existed. “The next semester, I got all As,” Destiny said.
Now she’s working on her master’s degree in education at Washington State University and has a scholarship for a doctoral program. She credits Jones with making the difference.
“Jones, who sees it differently, said, “She always says, ‘If it wasn’t for the drill team,’ but I said, ‘Sweetie, it was always in you. I saw it.’”
Jones was named a CNN Hero, based on a nomination by Destiny, who calls Jones “a guardian angel to so many of us.”
Taron Green was 15 and walking down the street when he said, “This strange lady pulled up on me in her car and started talking. She asked me if I wanted to play drums. I was skeptical at first. But I went in (to a rehearsal)—and I never left.”
In fact, Taron was on his way to commit a robbery, part of his initiation into a gang, when Jones, who had no idea, invited him to join the TAPS drum line.
Now 27, Green mentors other young men because he saw how the program changed his life. “I became more stable, more patient,” he said. “I learned to control my anger.”
Today, he is the members of a Philadelphia band called A Level Gentlemen. He also met his girlfriend, who was on the drum team also. The two have a six-month-old son and WaWa is the godmother.
Last month Jones, now 40, and her girls received national attention with media coverage that started with an appearance on Good Morning America where they were surprised by a video message from Beyonce.
Jones’s dream is to open up the Dynamite Center, a tribute to her grandfather and the family she says taught her to love everyone. She wants a larger permanent space so she doesn’t have to turn any kid away.
“Before I leave this earth, my babies will have the biggest stage…” said Jones, who has 326 kids on her roster right now and said over 600 showed up for their last audition.
She admits she is attracted to the “unruly kids. They just want a kiss,” she offered.
Her three children—27, 17 and eight–are involved in the family business also, which allows them to spend time together.
When she turned 40, Jones said, her girlfriends wanted to take her to Cancun. Instead, she pleaded with them to help her put on “Love Changes Everything,” an evening where the CSS children could showcase their talents.
“Over 800 people came out to support the kids,” said Jones. “It was the best day of my life.”