Sophisticated Sisters drill team leader up for national award

Posted: November 19, 2013

THE CAMDEN Sophisticated Sisters (CSS) drill team really has been kicking it lately.

Just this year alone, CSS members delivered high-energy performances on ABC's "Dancing with the Stars," "Good Morning America" and the "Steve Harvey Show."

Stop for a second and let that sink in. These aren't pros. I'm talking about kids, some barely as high as my knee. They live in one of the roughest cities in America and practice in an abandoned water tower.

Yet, the Sophisticated Sisters drill team is beating the stereotypes - about their hometown and about kids from disadvantaged backgrounds. Although fewer than half of all youngsters in Camden graduate from high school, every single member of Sophisticated Sisters does. Many go on to college.

The group recently caught the attention of Beyonce, who gave members a video shoutout after seeing them dance to her hit, "Get Me Bodied." And when I stopped by to watch the drill team practice last week, members were rehearsing for yet another national TV appearance.

"Wawa" or "Miss Wawa" is how the young team members refer to Tawanda Jones, their leader, mentor and surrogate mother who formed the drill team about 25 years ago. For all these years, she's been helping drill-team members develop self-esteem and confidence and has expanded the program to include boys with the Distinguished Brothers of CSS and the Almighty Percussion Sound Drumline.

Now, she's getting national recognition for all she's done. Jones is one of CNN's 10 Heroes of the Year, an honor for which she'll get $50,000.

Destiny L. Bush, a former CSS drill-team member who is now a doctoral candidate at Washington State University, wrote a letter to CNN nominating Jones for the annual honor.

"Wawa and CSS have helped hundreds of children in the city of Camden, including myself," Bush wrote. "She is the light in the middle of the tunnel that provides our youth with hope of a better life."

Jones, 40, also has a chance to win another $250,000 - money she desperately wants so that she can purchase an abandoned medical-arts building on Haddon Avenue in Camden to use as a practice space.

The grand-prize winner is chosen by an online vote tally. Voting closed yesterday and the winner hasn't been announced. The awards ceremony will be broadcast Dec. 1 at 8 p.m.

But Jones isn't stressing over it.

"I'm really kind of leaving it in God's hands," she said. "The fact that someone thought enough of me to nominate me, that's crazy enough right there."

Learning the drill

At just 15, Jones was a kid herself when her drill team, based at the Camden Youth Activity Center, lost its funding and closed. She still remembers how neighborhood kids began to gather at her home as they learned the sad news - and contemplated their future.

They needed a leader. Would she do it?

"I said, 'I'm 15 years old. I don't know anything about starting a drill team,' " she recalled.

But her grandfather, the late Walter "Dynamite" Green Jr., encouraged her to step up. He donated the money for three drums and 80 uniforms - the Camden Sophisticated Sisters' first uniforms - which were navy and orange in honor of the black female baseball league that Green once organized.

After graduating from Camden High, in 1991, Jones, by then a teen mother, briefly attended Livingstone College, a historically black college in Salisbury, N.C., where she was a cheerleader and majored in social work. While she was away, her mother chaperoned the drill team's practices.

Jones dropped out of school after two years to help out with Green, who had developed Alzheimer's disease. She got a job as a teacher's aide in Camden and resumed her work with CSS.

Fast-forward 20 years and nearly 4,000 members later, Camden Sophisticated Sisters have become local celebrities and are much in demand. Jones is married to her high-school sweetheart, has three children and lives in Camden's Parkside neighborhood.

Until three weeks ago, she worked with developmentally challenged children, but she quit to focus on CSS full time.

'You deserve the best'

There's a lot to do, for Jones and for team members.

Members have to maintain a C average and participate in 200 hours of community service. Jones personally visits their schools to make sure that students are staying on top of their grades.

If they want, she'll even take them with her to worship at Rock of Ages Worship Ministry.

As I watched the students work on their routines one recent evening, I was amazed to see elements of ballet and modern dance worked into their movements.

"This is my way of tricking them into learning a different culture, a different way of life," Jones explained.

Another way she does that is by hosting banquets for the drill team featuring different cuisines, such as Indian and Asian. The next one is scheduled for Nov. 30.

"I try to put in their mind that you deserve the best," Jones said. "I'm trying to show them, if you work hard, you can get these things. Our young ladies, down the line somewhere, started losing respect for themselves, and the men also lost respect for them."

At CSS practice, students are encouraged to support each other. They hold hands in unity circles as they recite life-affirming chants. It really is an oasis inside that water tower.

"Once they walk through these doors, they forget all the chaos outside," Jones said. "Once they come in here, they leave all of their worries at the door."


On Twitter: @JeniceArmstrong

Blog: ph.ly/HeyJen

Email: armstrj@phillynews.com

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