By Victor Ochieng
Tawanda Jones is a woman who has given herself to helping elevate the livelihood of young people in Camden, New Jersey, a city which ranks among the poorest across the nation. The city is known for serious crime cases, including gun crime, and gang violence.
Jones knows the effects of living in such an environment. It’s for that reason she founded Camden Sophisticated Sisters (CSS), in which she serves as the president. Through the organization, Jones is helping young girls and boys see life in a different perspective as opposed to getting engulfed in the high level crime in the city. CSS offers dancing, drumming and stomping lessons; and indeed, through the outfit, several girls and boys have danced their way to success.
“These kids are survivors,” says Jones. “They need a challenge. And they need a community and teachers that care about their well-being.”
The 44-year-old Jones founded the nonprofit as a teenager.
The importance of the nonprofit in the city can’t be overstated. The city is known for its very low graduation rate, which stands at somewhere around 50%. On the contrary, CSS has a 100% graduation rate, and many of its graduates end up in college or pursue some other forms of higher education. Jones reveals that her students sport a B grade average.
Former members of CSS are found in diverse fields including medicine, law and more.
Every year, members of the group dedicate up to 200 hours of community service.
The group has members aged from as low as 3 years to as high as college-age.
Understanding the kind of influences the children are exposed to every day, Jones ensures that CSS members are taught self-respect at a very early age so that they comprehend their worth. They’re taught that it’s okay to speak properly and wear their trousers without sagging.
For the 30 years that the nonprofit has been in existence, it has given birth to other organizations, namely, The Almighty Percussion Sound (TAPS) and Distinguished Brothers (DBz).
Jones says the group currently has 323 members, with 200 already on its waiting list.
CSS offers different dance styles, including Ballet, Hip Hop, Drill, and Jazz. The TAPS members play the percussion, while the DBz members dance together with the girls, ensuring that members of the different units get to work together.
They’re mainly practicing in Buff Hall in Camden, although they’ve offered performances in diverse platforms across the country. Members have been featured in a number of shows across the nation, including Good Morning America and Dancing with the Stars.
Jones says the program is needed in the city, being one of the most violent and economically deprived cities across the United States.
“We have kids who aren’t allowed to be kids,” says Jones. “They’re taking care of their siblings. [Their parents] might be working two or three jobs.”
Jones founded the group in 1986 with the support of her grandfather who bought her three drums and 80 uniforms.
Because she was still young and had to go to school, she couldn’t get all the time she needed for the group. After high school, however, she dedicated her time to serve the group.
However, Jones, a mother of four, went back to school after she was awarded fully paid scholarship by Strayer University. She’s now on a path to attaining a Bachelor’s Degree in Business Management.
Jones talk took up the scholarship to serve as an example to the children since she also talks with them about the importance of education.
“I’m not giving up, that’s for sure,” she adds. “I don’t care how long it takes me.”