Chicago Seed Community: Chicago, IL
South Shore Drill Team: 40 Years of Excellence
Nationally known for their electrifying precision-drilling and wide range of dance, South Shore Drill Team, performs at more than 85 events each year. At most events, the Drill Team is the main act and number one highlight for the audience. “These kids are leaders who demonstrate empowerment and dedication. They represent Chicago and counter negative stereotypes of our young people portrayed as victims or perpetrators. To see these beautiful kids performing with such focus, confidence, and skill always makes us proud,” reflected Antigone Blackwell, Director of Foundation and Corporate Relations. The Drill Team regularly performs across the country at prestigious events including two Presidential Inaugurations, NBA All-Star game, Walt Disney World, and the Kentucky Derby.
Founded in 1980 with a handful of neighborhood children, South Shore Drill Team serves 300 young people, ages 8-21. The group uses the performing arts to engage urban youth throughout their critical teenage years, mitigating the dangers of drugs and violence, and guiding members toward completing their education and career goals. For over 40 years, the team has operated in areas of high need on the City’s South Side, providing opportunities for young people from low-income families. The organization accepts referrals of court-involved youth and effectively helps them turn their lives around.
Retaining Youth Through Their Critical Teenage Years
The outcomes speak for themselves. In a 2021 survey, 61 percent of youth had been members for three to six years or more. While the majority attend CPS schools where the graduation rate for Black males is less than 65 percent, team members consistently achieve 100 percent graduate high school and 85 percent of youth participants go on to college. Alumni include teachers, first responders, lawyers, business managers, and medical professionals.
Many of the youth are first introduced to the group through Chicago’s Bud Billiken Back-to-School Parade, the third-largest parade in the country where South Shore Drill Team is the fan-favorite. New members who join after seeing the group in August are on stage at the December Holiday Show, fueling their passion for performing arts and motivating them to continue through winter rehearsals to the Spring Show. That event is followed by dozens of summer parades culminating in the Bud Billiken and they are promoted to the next highest level as a new group of members join afterwards.
“What makes us different is not just attracting the kids but keeping them engaged,” explains Community Outreach Director Steven Washington. “The longer they stay with the team the better performers they are and better the chance they graduate high school and go into college. That’s what we mean by working with them through their critical teenage years. If we can keep them for 3 years, we are able to really have a substantial impact on their lives.” One of the keys to success is the South Shore Drill Team’s instructors, most of whom grew up in the same neighborhoods as current members and were former participants themselves. They offer a mix of empathy with guidance on how to overcome challenges.
“The instructors understand the challenges our kids face daily because they've been there themselves,” explained Founder and Director Arthur Robertson.
Another important component is the strength of the Drill Team’s parent engagement. “The parents support the Drill Team staff at parades, stage shows, and recreational outings,” according to Resource Development Director Sara Vlajcic. They serve as mentors for both the youth and younger parents or grandparents struggling to raise teens. Parents help with costumes, meals, fundraising and transportation. Mrs. Vlajcic tells the story of how a group of parents saved the day when a bus didn’t show up to take the youth participants to a parade in the Wisconsin Dells. “At first the kids were really disappointed as many had never been to Wisconsin, but the more experienced parents quickly organized a 10-car caravan and got everyone there on time and of course the Drill Team was the highlight of the parade.” Mr. Washington shared, “when we got there no one could tell all the adversity we went through to get to that location which speaks to the motivation and strength of the youth, staff, and especially the parent volunteers.”
Over the years the Drill Team has worked with Chicago schools and parks, Chicago Police, and many other partners. In 2019, they collaborated with the Chicago Park District to house a satellite rehearsal site on the far south side which brought the program to youth who typically could not participate because of the distance. In 2021, Jewel Osco, a longstanding Chicago grocery chain created the “South Shore Drill Team Community Room,” a 2,200 square-foot additional rehearsal space for the group.
Engaging and Guiding Young People
When asked about the key to building such a successful and longstanding youth program, Mr. Washington broke it down, “You have to have a love for young people. You have to be judgment-free. We are here to engage and support these youth. We have a passion for what we do and really nourish these kids. We treat all of them as if they are our own kids. We are a family away from family. That’s the mentality we have. That’s what makes us different.”