Camden's Sophisticated Sisters up for $250k CNN award

During a dress rehearsal at Dancing with the Stars last spring, host Tom Bergeron high-fives Daisanay Green, 9. At left is host Brooke Burke-Charvet; next to her is Savannah Brooks, 9; and Sisters leader Tawanda Jones. (Photo by April Saul)

Tawanda Jones, founder of the Sophisticated Sisters drill team, might already be a hero to many in the troupe, but could become even more so.

CNN has named Jones as one of its top 10 finalists in the news station’s CNN Heroes for 2013. Finalists receive $50,000. The winner gets $250,000.

Jones said she learned she was a finalist last week while she and four girls from the team were in Chicago on Oct. 10 taping a segment of the Steve Harvey show. That segment has not yet aired.

“Oh my God, I was ecstatic,” Jones said of being contacted by CNN. “So many of the other nominees are incredible people. It is a huge honor.”

Jones created the drill team to help children learn discipline, respect and community service, and encourage education. All of the 4,000 children who’ve gone through the program have graduated high school, according to a CNN biography. That’s in one of the poorest, most violent cities in the country, where less than half graduate high school.

Jones said she would use the money to purchase a building on Haddon Avenue near Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital for the team to use, as well as a place where seniors could connect with youth. Currently, they practice in an old cement water tower.

“There’s a building I have my eyes on,” Jones said. “If we get that, and other funding … we could run our program and train our kids, do mentoring, have a homework program, start a journalism program for kids. And I want to start a program where senior citizens could come and interact and read with the kids. I think our city has forgotten its elders. I want to teach the kids to be entrepreneurs and help them become productive citizens.”

Sophisticated Sisters first came to public attention when the troupe performed last spring on Dancing with the Stars. The troupe went to Hollywood – a dream Jones thought would never be realized.

“My mom used to say all the time CSS (Camden Sophisticated Sisters) is going to Hollywood. And I used to just brush it off. I didn’t want to listen to mama. I learned my lesson,” Jones said with a laugh.

Sophisticated Sisters had its beginnings in 1986, when Jones, then 13, tried to sign up for a new drill team she’d heard about. She was told there wouldn’t be one unless she ran it herself, according to a previous story.

Her grandfather, Walter “Dynamite” Green, stepped in and bought 80 uniforms and a drum to help them start. Jones, who became a teen mother and still graduated high school, kept the drill team going.

Sophisticated Sisters has applied for federal nonprofit status. It now has more than 200 members, with four divisions of dancers that run the gamut from three-year olds to alumni adults, and a smattering of boys, mostly playing drums. With registration fee, monthly dues, and uniforms, it costs each child about $245 a year to belong.

Jones sets the bar high. They must maintain a C average, and if they have to miss one of the four three-hour practices each week, they are required to “call out” themselves.

Voting on CNN is open. Winners will be announced in a special set to air Dec. 1.


Contact Frank Kummer at 215-854-2329 or Follow @frankkummer on Twitter.

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