By Erika Clarke, CNN
(CNN) – Camden, New Jersey, is not an easy place for a kid to grow up in.Just ask 15-year-old Destinee Williams.”Camden has this reputation of being dangerous because you can walk outside at 3 in the afternoon and hear gunshots,” Destinee said. “Gangs and drugs are a huge deal. Kids get into gangs to feel safe so they won’t get killed.”
Unfortunately, Destinee has had to deal with too many killings in her young life.
“My father was murdered in Camden last year, and my cousin was murdered (last month),” she said. “In the last month, I know of at least three people getting killed. In Camden, I expect it to happen. I’m not surprised anymore.”
For many people, the violence in Camden can make it feel more like a war zone than an American city, but the battle doesn’t end there.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, about 42% of Camden’s population is living below the poverty line, making it one of the poorest cities in the United States. The New Jersey Department of Education reports that nearly 90% of Camden’s schools are in the bottom 5% performance-wise in the state.
About 42% of Camden’s population is living below the poverty line, making it one of the poorest cities in the United States.
“For too long, the public school system in Camden has failed its children,” New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said Monday, when he announced the state would be taking over the city’s schools. “Each day that it gets worse, we’re failing the children of Camden, we’re denying them a future, we’re not allowing them to reach their full potential.”
Camden may seem like a city without hope, but one of its native daughters is on a mission to change its downtrodden reputation and empower its youngest residents.
Tawanda Jones started a dance team, the Camden Sophisticated Sisters Drill Team, to entice young girls to stay off the street and do something positive with their lives. Over the years, she has incorporated boys into the team and also started a drum line program.
“People perceive Camden and its kids as garbage,” Jones said. “We have so many gifted kids. They want more out of life. There’s just nothing in our city to do. Therefore, what happens when a child has idle time and no positive way to channel that energy? They have to find something else. And it just may turn into the dark side.”
Through the drill team, Jones aims to teach kids about discipline, dedication and self-respect, things she believes are necessary to survive and thrive in this rough community and beyond.
“Whether you need it for work, you need it for school, you need discipline, period,” said Jones, 40. “Drill team is good as far as structure, because you have to be precise. You have to be on point.”
Jones also stresses education, as kids in the program have to keep a C average in school.
“If they get too many Cs, we put them on academic probation,” Jones said. “We don’t want to kick a child out because they’re not doing well in school, so on my days off I go to the child’s school just to correspond with the teacher. I’ll just make sure that the child is doing well or (see) what we can do on our end to help that child get to where she needs to be.”