|To view a video of the drum corps in action go to
When the Inaugural Parade for Barack Obama winds its way down Pennsylvania Avenue on Jan. 20, some of the nation’s most storied marching bands will showcase their talents. But alongside the likes of the 250-member Grambling State University band will march the 12 teenage drummers of Bonnie Brae, a residential treatment center for abused, abandoned and neglected boys in northern New Jersey.
Bonnie Brae may be the unlikeliest of the 90 groups chosen from a record 1,382 applicants to march in the parade. The Bonnie Brae Knights Drum Corps 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. Using bass drums, quads (four different sized drums joined together) and snare drums, the 12- to 16-year-old drummers create African rhythms that encourage the audience to clap along.
“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 besides matching sweatshirts, and playing a motley collection of drums assembled from area high schools and private donations, 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 – on an impulse – sent an application and audition tape to the Presidential Inauguration Committee, the panel that selects the parade participants. In it, he 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 apparently lone representative in the Inaugural Parade. (Parade officials said they wouldn’t have a complete list until Inauguration Day.)
Bonnie Brae’s selection, and a subsequent profile in New Jersey’s The Star-Ledger, unleashed a flood of charitable giving unlike anything the 91-year-old facility has ever experienced. Max Weinberg, the drummer from Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, called immediately and donated 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.
Donations also came from foundations and individuals moved by the story. The Pennsylvania-based Jonathan Krist Foundation, named after a 19-year-old drummer who died in a car crash, paid for the band’s transportation to and from Washington. A Jamaican woman living in New York City sent $10 dollars and a note saying she was happy to donate despite having trouble paying her bills.
In all, Bonnie Brae has received over 300 donations totaling more than $40,000, Powers said. The money has gone to uniforms and will pay for future performances by the drum line, including a scheduled appearance in the West Virginia Strawberry Festival in May.
The story of the Bonnie Brae Knights has also grabbed the attention of the national media. ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox and even Telemundo have traveled to the campus that houses 98 boys aged 8 to 18. “The kids love it,” Powers said. “They all have their favorite line (for television).” Powers said he realized just how much attention the school has received when one boy told him recently, “I am T.V.”
The exposure has also helped Bonnie Brae strengthen ties with the surrounding area. “It has really opened up the community to Bonnie Brae and what we are all about,” Powers said. Professionals from the nearby Spirit of Newark marching band now give lessons to the drum line, which has increased its practices tenfold, from once a week to twice a day. 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 there were only seven boys 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. All told, 12 marchers, six alternates and five staff members will leave New Jersey at midnight on Inauguration Day, driving through the night to avoid traffic.
Once in Washington, they’ll eat their packed breakfasts before entering Pentagon security at 9:30 a.m. After lunch at a warming tent on the Ellipse, a park just south of the White House, the Knights will march more than a mile to the Capitol, where the parade officially begins. By the time they get on the bus to return home that evening, the boys from Bonnie Brae will have marched more than three miles in front of hundreds of thousands of people, and millions more via television.
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 T.V.’ ” The school has made t-shirts commemorating the parade for all its residents and is planning a huge send-off rally on Jan. 15 so that all the boys can join in the celebration.
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.”