Drive south through Camden on Interstate 676, and off to your left you'll see a large, white water tower. At the top, in faded blue lettering, the word "Camden" stands tall above the surrounding neighborhoods.

For many, the word denotes a list of pejoratives — violence, turmoil, blight — but for the community group that practices in the base of the tower, there's only one word you need to know: sophisticated.

For Latoya Toliver, sophistication is a welcome relief from the feeling she typically gets raising her kids in Camden: fear.

"You're basically scared all the time. I don't really let my kids go outside to play," Toliver said. "You know, it's gun shots and kids getting killed, adults getting killed — it's cops everywhere, drug dealers everywhere. It's not a safe environment at all."

But there is one place that Toliver always feels safe bringing her kids: the water tower at the intersection of Louis and Everett streets. "Everybody jokes about 'Oh, the water's gonna cave in,'" she said, "but it's good in here."

What 'it' is is a dance and drill team called the Camden Sophisticated Sisters (CSS). At the center of the room, teaching drill steps by example, is the group's founder and leader, Tawanda Jones. People in the neighborhood call her "Wa-wa."

When Jones speaks, it's with authority, and the girls — over 100 of them — listen intently and act accordingly. On a cold Saturday, Jones held tryouts for the new year's team, barking out initiation orders.

"You have to maintain discipline," she yelled. "The reason why is because you need discipline in life, period — in order for you to wake up and go to school, in order for you to wake up and go to work. Do you understand?"

The girls' ages range widely, but they all stand with poise, look you in the eye with confidence, act "sophisticated." Jones wants everybody to know that "these sophisticated ladies are from Camden, New Jersey".

A community calling

It's a message Jones has been preaching now for over 25 years. But it's one that easily could have never materialized. An avid dancer, at age 16, Jones was asked by a neighborhood community center to run a drill team. But after only a few months, funding for the center ran out, and Jones, pregnant at the time, figured that was that.

"I felt like we didn't have a place to go, a place to practice," Jones said, "so I just went on about my way."

But her girls had other ideas.

"They actually came to my house, like, all of these children came to my house and said, 'Miss Wa-wa can you like start this, can you keep going?' And I'm like, 'Baby, I don't know about doing this on my own,'" Jones recounted. "So my grandfather said, 'Sure you do. Can't be that hard. Whatever you need, I'm here.'"

Inspired by the girls' plea, Jones agreed.

For years, the only practice space they had was the sidewalk and street out front of her house. Even still, the kids kept coming — hundreds of them every year.

"We were outside in the cold all year round," Jones said. "I had some children staying at the house and everything. It just became the community house."

Over the years, no matter what space she found for the team to meet, that community-house feel has never left. Parents chip in with each other's kids. They hold bake sales to raise money for uniforms and travel to competitions. If one family is short on a bill, the group will pitch in to pay it.

Just a year ago, the team got some needed stability when the city offered them part-time access to the water tower. Now, on top of her full time job, Jones volunteers to run three four-hour practices a week.

But her commitment to the kids doesn't end there. "Every last one of them have my cell phone. They can call me at — I don't care what time it is," Jones said. "I've gotten out of my bed at three o'clock in the morning to make sure somebody was safe."

Results

Jones' passion and self-sacrifice would mean a whole lot less, if not for the results she sees. Kizzy Harvey is a CSS mom who's seen the transformation in her nine year old.

"She was having attitude, doing a little head shaking and everything," Harvey said, "but being as though she's in CSS, she learned how to discipline herself. She comes home every day. She does her homework. It's no arguing about you know, 'You have to do this, you have to do that.'"

This emphasis on school is a CSS cornerstone. Before they can practice, all the girls must finish their schoolwork, no exceptions. If a kid's grades begin to slide into the "C" range, Jones will use her day off to visit with her teachers.

This follow-through has led Jones to be able to make an almost unbelievable assertion: Every single kid that has come through the CSS program has graduated from high school. For the rest of Camden, 44 percent of those who start 9th grade don't end up finishing.

Tarone Green could have easily been counted in that number. He's now a drummer in CSS's male counterpart, The Almighty Percussion Sound.

"I almost joined a gang," Green said. "I almost was part of a very, very big robbery."

What made him not do it?

"This," he said. "When you're here, the way Wa-wa works is you can either do this or do that, but you can't have both. You can't have your cake and eat it too. So you have to choose which life you want to live."

As the try-out continued, Jones saw a few girls looking shyly in from outside. They were young, on their own and shabbily dressed. One admitted she didn't know how old she was. Jones invited them to join, and watching the scene you might get the sense you were witnessing lives change.

"If somebody asks you outside, 'I want to fight you,' the first thing you gonna say is, 'I'm ready to fight,' right?" Jones asked the group.

"Now I'm asking you to be a part of something great, a positive gang. I'm asking you to be a part of something magnificent."

The girls eventually nodded their heads "yes" and ran off to join the ranks. It was a victory for CSS, but for a person like Jones, there's always much more to strive for.

"If I could have this place every day just to keep the kids safe, I would. In the future, before I even leave this earth, I will have a building, we will have transportation with no problem. God knows my heart," she said. "He knows that these babies are going to be taken care of, you know? It's already destined."


Video by Christian Sarkis Graham/For NewsWorks