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GameChangers: Tawanda Jones, Using Dance To Transform Camden's Children

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) -- If the Camden Sophisticated Sisters Drill Team had a body, Tawanda "Wawa" Jones would be the heart.

"I started when I was 15 years old and it has been a world wind...ever since," she says.

For the past 29 years, "Auntie Wawa" or "Ma Wawa" as she is affectionately called, has run CSS as a safe place for youth.

CSS is comprised of more than 300 dancers of all ages, both boys and girls. More than 200 kids are on the waiting list. And over the years the group has grown so large it's impossible to fit everyone in one place.

"It was rough, it was very rough," she says, "we were on the streets for many years practicing outside, rain, sleet or snow."

Jones says despite the challenge of finding a place to practice, she rarely cancels a session. The kids crave what "Miss Wawa" is offering and it's not dance. It's love and the skills to survive a city that's difficult to thrive in.

"We took love out of our neighborhoods a long time ago," says Jones, "you have to build community."

But Auntie Wawa does not play. When kids arrive at CSS it's all about homework, hard work and discipline.

"You have to educate them and let them know your academics are way more important than anything you learn in here," she says.

CSS Dancers
CSS Dancers performers (credit: CSS)

Jones and her team develop relationships with CSS kids' schools and step in, alongside parents, whenever there is a problem.

"When I am upset, I come here and dance my pain away," says Daisanay Green, 12. She has her sights on medical school and says CSS keeps her focused.

"I just worry about my dancing life and school," she says, "that's all I worry about."

Green relies on her Auntie Wawa to keep her positive. But many children rely on Jones, who is a married with four children. Her reach expands decades and generations, to thousands of youth. CSS boasts a 100 percent high school graduation rate. Not bad, when compared to the 60 percent rate in Camden.

"I know there is hope, it just takes people to care again, to love each other once again," says Jones.

The love within CSS has lifted the group to great heights. They perform all over the country and are so good, their story has grabbed the attention of the likes of Oprah Winfrey, Queen Latifah, Steve Harvey and many others. The troop has even appeared on "Dancing with the Stars."

Tawanda Jones
Tawanda Jones with Oprah Winfrey (credit CSS)

But the attention is not changing Jones. She still dances with the kids and is using the spotlight to expand her reach.

"I tell the kids you have to stay humble," she says, "and focus on the mission."

CSS currently has 200 kids on their waiting list. So last year, the group acquired an abandoned building on Princess Avenue. It's rough, but when Jones looks at it she sees the safe haven for Camden Youth she's always dreamed of.

"It'll be called the Dynamite Center," she says, "I literally get butterflies...because we are so close."

Jones says they have to raise money to build the center she says will have dance spaces large enough to hold their group. She wants computer classes, entrepreneurial classes and much more.

rendering of future Dynamite Center
Artist rendering of future Dynamite Center: (credit CSS)

"I just see an overflow of community and children," she says, "parking lot filled."

In January, CSS called volunteers together to clean up their new home, another step towards the dream. Jones says she's not worried. She believes her dream will come true, for her kids.

"Many people thought that we were just a drill team," she says smiling, "but I knew that we were more....we are a family."

Click here to donate to the CSS building fund:





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