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Tawanda ‘WaWa’ Jones

(Tawanda "WaWa" Jones.  Credit: Cherri Gregg)

(Tawanda “WaWa” Jones. Credit: Cherri Gregg)

Gregg_Cherrie--NEW Cherri Gregg
Cherri Gregg is the community affairs reporter for KYW Newsr...
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By Cherri Gregg

CAMDEN, N.J. (CBS) — In a city best known for its murder, pregnancy, and dropout rates, Tawanda “WaWa” Jones is changing those statistics by instilling pride, persistence, and hard work in Camden’s youth.

“We have a 100 percent graduation rate,” she says with pride. “When those kids come in, they are over there doing their homework.  If there’s something they don’t know how to do, we have mentors.”

Jones is the founder of the Camden Sophisticated Sisters Drill Team Inc.

Once in a drill team herself, Jones started the group 26 years ago when friends showed up at her house wanting to dance after their program lost funding.  She says her grandfather, Walter “Dynamite” Green, bought the group 80 uniforms and three drums.

Then, in 2004, she started the Distinguished Brothers, for young men.

Today, she takes the groups all over the country to perform in parades.  And now her reach has expanded from hundreds to thousands.

(Jones, far center of photo, leads a rehearsal in the Water Tower.  Credit: Cherri Gregg)

(Jones, far center of photo, leads a rehearsal in the Water Tower. Credit: Cherri Gregg)

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“When you take these kids out of their element, which is Camden, and let them experience different things, it opens their eyes,” says Jones. “I want to shape these kids, nurture these kids.”

Jones’ kids meet in a building in the base of a municipal water tower, near Louis and Everett Streets in Camden.   And they come from all parts of Camden.  Many live in abject poverty, some have abusive or drug-addicted parents.

But they leave all that outside the moment they walk into the Water Tower.

Jones is tough, setting standards high.  She says she doesn’t allow junk food, requires a ‘C’ average or better in school, and mandates that all participants in the program do 200 hours of community service.

“I love each and every one of these kids, flaws and all,” says Jones. “I let them know they are special.”

But what would the kids be doing if they weren’t taking part in Jones’ programs?

“I’d probably be walking the street,” says Rynashia Devine, 15.  A freshman at Camden High School, she says she had anger problems, but CSS is helping her to change.

“Instead of taking my anger out physically, I dance it out,” she says. “Miss WaWa is like a second mother to me — she and all my brothers and sisters in drill team are like my family.”

Jones says many of her young people go on to college and then come back to give back, which makes her proud.

She says her biggest challenge is space and funding.  CSS charges just $85 per year for those who can pay, and holds fundraisers for additional cash.

But, these days, Jones says, there are just too many who need help.

“In one month, I already turned away over 400 and something kids,” she says.

She says CSS has outgrown the Water Tower, which she says Camden mayor Dana Redd has allowed CSS to use for free.

(CSS meets in a building that is the base of a municipal water tower.  Credit: Cherri Gregg)

(CSS meets in a building that is the base of a municipal water tower. Credit: Cherri Gregg)

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So, Jones says, she is dreaming big: she has set her sights on raising the funds for a building she’d call “The Dynamite Center,” after her grandfather.

“I want everything in this building,” Jones says, smiling.  “I want the curriculum to be tight. I want my kids to learn computer skills, journalism for kids, everything.  There is nothing these kids can’t do.”

And they believe it.

Hear the podcast…

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