Foster Kids Drum Up Attention

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The Bonnie Brae Knights Drum Corps may be the unlikeliest of the 90 groups chosen from a record 1,382 applicants to march in President Barack Obama’s inaugural parade.

The drum line – 12 teenagers from a northern New Jersey residential treatment center for abused, abandoned and neglected boys – did not exist until 2004. It was created only after a Bonnie Brae resident asked about starting a drum line and a 64-year-old substance abuse counselor with a background in African drumming acceded to his request.

Practice makes perfect for the band.

Photo: Bonnie Brae

They played the African rhythms the counselor dictated on a motley collections of drums assembled from hand-me-downs from local schools and private donations.

“The kids loved it,” said Bonnie Brae CEO William Powers. “They were just into making noise. There’s something about boys and drums.”

Lacking any uniforms other than matching sweatshirts, the boys played wherever Powers could book them. That included a local cycling race, a Philadelphia 76ers game and Walt Disney World – a trip paid for with stipends from their other performances. For the past year, the drum line has lacked even a musical director, as poor health forced the founding staff member to retire.

Yet after Obama was elected, Powers – who saw the excitement the president-elect had generated among his students – sent an application and audition tape to the Presidential Inauguration Committee, the panel that selects the parade participants. “The kids here, they were very into Obama,” Powers said. “Usually it’s very apolitical on campus. We did a straw election with the kids and Obama won by a landslide.”

In the application, Powers highlighted the message of hope that the boys of Bonnie Brae, who failed at many other residential placements, represent. New Jersey Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D) backed Powers’ application, and on Dec. 8 the tiny Bonnie Brae Knights became New Jersey’s lone representative in the inaugural parade.

Bonnie Brae’s selection, and a subsequent profile in New Jersey’s The Star-Ledger, unleashed a flood of chartable giving unlike anything the 91-year-old facility has ever experienced. Max Weinberg, Bruce Springsteen’s drummer, sent over a full complement of new drums. James Gandolfini, star of the television show The Sopranos, made a large donation. Springsteen’s representatives also called to see if the Knights needed anything.

In all, Bonnie Brae received more than 300 donations, many with heartfelt notes of encouragement attached, totaling more than $40,000. Along the way the drum corps became a media darling. Powell said he realized just how much attention the school has received when one boy told him recently, “I am TV.”

Meantime, the donations have gone for uniforms, the Inauguration trip, and will pay for future performances by the drum line, including a scheduled appearance at the West Virginia Strawberry Festival in May.

The exposure has also helped Bonnie Brae strengthen ties with the surrounding area in New Jersey. “It has really opened up the community to Bonnie Brae and what we are all about,” Powers said. For example, professionals from the nearby Spirit of Newark marching band gave lessons to the drum line before its Inauguration Day appearance. Powers said this interaction is especially beneficial for boys after they leave the facility, because many are from the Newark area.

For the boys at Bonnie Brae, the drum line has suddenly become an extremely attractive option. When Powers applied for them to march in the parade, only seven boys were on the drum line, which had shrunk with the loss of its director and high turnover among members. Boys at the facility stay an average of 16 months. After the Inauguration announcement, boys rushed to join, and the drum line swelled to 18.

The sudden fame of Bonnie Brae has also buoyed spirits and boosted the pride of all the boys at the school, Powers said. “They’ll say, ‘Hey, my grandmother saw us on TV.’ ”

Powers attributes the success of the drum line, and of the facility in general, to its focus on kids’ strengths, rather than the negative labels that they arrive with. “Strength-based programming really works,” he said. “You have to find out what these kids are really good at and work from there.”

Also marching in the parade was a group from the McCrossan Boys Ranch near Sioux Falls, S.D., another residential treatment facility. The McCrossan Hitch Team included a wagon, a team of horses and about 18 youths.

For more information about the Bonnie Brae Knights Drum Corps, and a link to video footage of the group preparing for the parade, see, “Latest News.”