Camden drill team with bigger mission celebrates new home

In September 2019, members of the Camden Sophisticated Sisters walk through Waterfront South to perform at the Hearts and Hands Festival sponsored by Sacred Heart Church.  (April Saul for WHYY)

In September 2019, members of the Camden Sophisticated Sisters walk through Waterfront South to perform at the Hearts and Hands Festival sponsored by Sacred Heart Church. (April Saul for WHYY)

For more than 30 years, the Camden Sophisticated Sisters bounced around from one location to another. So when Tawanda Jones finally found a home for her drill team, at the Michael J. Doyle Fieldhouse in the Waterfront South neighborhood, she was ready to celebrate.

She hosted a “building shower” — a joyful brunch in the fieldhouse gym with family, friends and much excitement for the future — on November 2, 2019.

Hours later, her husband Robert Jones collapsed in the fieldhouse lobby after suffering a major stroke.

Friends put him in her truck and Tawanda Jones sped to Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital, where he had brain surgery. The couple would live at the hospital for the next 10 weeks.

For Tawanda, 47, who had recently signed a lease to use the fieldhouse with The Heart of Camden — a community development organization connected to Sacred Heart Church — quitting wasn’t an option.

“Even with all she’s got going on at home,” said Heart of Camden executive director Carlos Morales, “there was no blip in terms of service. They didn’t stop, they kept moving!”

Bringing the Camden Sophisticated Sisters to the Michael Doyle Fieldhouse was the brainchild of Judyann McCarthy, associate vice president of Camden’s Center for Family Services. The fieldhouse — once a historic movie theater spanning an entire block — was barely being used. “The Heart of Camden had to focus on what it was really good at: redevelopment,” said Morales.  Since its inception in 1984, the organization has redeveloped more than 150 homes as well as cultural centers in the south Camden neighborhood.

“Wherever Tawanda goes,” said McCarthy, “she makes things come alive. I knew she would take the field house and make that into a diamond.”

In April 2019, Tawanda Jones and members of the Camden Sophisticated Sisters pose for a picture in the Michael J. Doyle Fieldhouse gym as they cleaned up the building and moved their equipment to their new home. (April Saul for WHYY)

The opportunity was particularly significant because since Tawanda Jones founded the organization as a teen, a dependable place for CSS to practice has eluded her. Fame was more attainable; in recent years, she’d been named a CNN Hero, appeared on Dancing with the Stars, and been gifted with much-needed funding by celebrities like Beyonce and Oprah.

Jones has been lauded not only for her team’s dance ability, but for her mentorship of several hundred children at a time in one of the poorest cities in the country. “Dance,” she has said, “is really just an excuse to save these kids.”  CSS members must maintain good grades; and for many, the woman they call “Wawa” is a second mother.

Jones has used a variety of Camden buildings for CSS, and at various times found herself locked out with no notice, ordered to perform shows to raise money for owners, or required to pay rents she couldn’t afford. In 2015, Jones purchased a cavernous, corrugated metal structure in Centerville, but that building needs nearly a million dollars in renovation to become the community center she envisioned.

McCarthy arranged for Jones to make a presentation to the Heart of Camden board of directors early last year. Jones felt a connection, and left the meeting thinking, she said, “Maybe I’ll get some space a few nights a week.”

Jones recalls them asking “How soon can you move in?’’ Her reply: “Yesterday!” The drill team was in limbo once again, having just stopped practicing at H.B. Wilson Family School because the school needed the space back.

At the time, Jones said, “The fieldhouse had some basketball, but that was it.” She knew that Father Doyle’s vision of a fieldhouse came from Ireland, where it is known as a place for different community activities, not just sports — or what Morales calls “a safe place for youth and families to play and to grow.”

“We needed to find a partner who could fulfill the vision that Father Doyle had,” said Morales. “Everybody knows about CSS, they have a great reputation and a great success rate. So a light bulb went off: Why can’t this be their home?”

Drill team members Menyi Paulk, left; and Brielle Coleman; dance at the Michael J. Doyle Fieldhouse gym during a sleepover sponsored by the Camden Sophisticated Sisters in June 2019. (April Saul for WHYY)

The partnership was not entered into lightly. Jones remembers going through seven drafts of a contract, along with creating a memorandum of understanding, and she hosted several community meetings to discuss concerns. She uses the building at cost, manages expenses, and rents out space for birthday parties and funeral repasts to pay for utilities. The partnership, Morales said, “works perfectly because of Tawanda’s passion and entrepreneurial skills.  We’re really happy.”

Since Jones has come into the picture, the fieldhouse has also been the scene of countless dance practices, spoken word performances, a CSS sleepover, a mother-daughter tea, food giveaways, Sacred Heart School gym classes, and practices and games for several basketball leagues.

“The drill team is just the gateway,” said Heart of Camden consultant Donna Helmes. “She’s been great, she’s tireless, she’s amazing. She’s totally exceeded our expectations.”

During her husband’s hospital stay, it was Jones’ oldest daughter LaQuicia Charnell who stepped in to run CSS, maintain commitments to the fieldhouse, and–along with brother Robb Jones–help parent two younger siblings.

“She was like me to the tenth power!” said Tawanda Jones. But Robert Jones, who runs the Distinguished Brothers and Almighty Percussion Sound drumline that are a part of CSS, insisted they not drop the ball.

“My husband was adamant,” said Jones. “He said, we have to keep going! The kids are going to get into stuff if we don’t.”

Shortly after arriving in the new neighborhood, Jones found herself administering CPR to a man who had collapsed from an overdose on the sidewalk. He survived, which she considered a good sign.

Jones credits the police for their support and for their foot patrols in the area. The intersection of Broadway and Viola Street has lots of drug dealing, but, said Donna Helmes, “The drugs seem less blatant now.” Joe Wysocki, chief of the Camden County Police Department that patrols the city calls Jones “not only a community leader, but a friend.”

Neither Jones nor the Heart of Camden will predict what the future holds. Jones has yet to give up on her Centerville building. Heart of Camden board president Ben Hill calls the partnership a “win-win” but has no interest in selling the fieldhouse.

The man whose name is on the building is excited about the change. “I salute Tawanda,” said Father Doyle, “and this awesome living beauty that she helps to bring forth in the Sophisticated Sisters of Camden.”

In September 2019, Father Michael J. Doyle greets participants at the Hearts and Hands Festival sponsored by Sacred Heart Church. (April Saul for WHYY)

The affection is mutual. “If I ever did own it,” said Jones, “I would never change the name of the space out of respect to Father Doyle and all the work he’s done. He planted the seeds; I just want to water them.”

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Help us get to 100% of our membership goal to support the reporters covering our region, the producers bringing you great local programs and the educators who teach all our children.