Tawanda Jones was just 15 years old when she auditioned for the local drill team at the Camden Youth Activity Center in New Jersey.
“When I got there, it was just little kids and I said I didn’t want to be a part of it because I was 15 and they were eight,” says Jones, 40, of Camden.
“So the director pulled me aside and said, ‘Do you want to be in charge of some of the groups?’ ” she recalls. “That was an easy ‘Yes.’ ”
Twenty-five years and some 4,000 kids later, she’s still teaching kids dance, drums and discipline through Camden Sophisticated Sisters, the nonprofit she formed.
Despite being in a city plagued with violence and a high school graduation rate of around 50 percent, every single one of the 4,000 kids and young adults in Jones’ programs has graduated.
“I don’t let them fail and fall through the cracks,” says Jones. “I get involved with the teachers and parents.”
And she emphasizes graduating from high school and going to college as a real, attainable goal.
“The drill team is what lures them in,” she says. “Once I have them in my possession, that’s where the real work begins.”
Shaquille Gurley, 20, was just 14 when he joined the drill team.
“She is like my second mother,” says Gurley, a junior at Rutgers-New Brunswick, who is studying criminal justice and social work.
“When I was going through any issue,” says Gurley, who was raised by a single mother, “I would show up at the drill team and all my problems would go away for a little.”
Their connection has not faded over the years.
“To this day I can call her any hour of the day and she will listen,” he says.
Lakesha Lockhart has two daughters, ages 7 and 9, on Jones’ drill team.
“Tawanda and her program keep my daughters off the street,” says Lockhart, 40, a certified home health aide and single mom. “She is a blessing. She shows them that when they graduate from high school they can be whatever they want to be.”
That is exactly the message Jones is trying to send.
“I want to show them how they can live,” she says, “and that it’s OK to want better for yourself.”
More Heroes Among Us:
Know a hero? Send suggestions to email@example.com. For more inspiring stories, read the latest issue of PEOPLE magazine