The Beat of the Drum

From humble beginnings, a local couple started a neighborhood youth organization and marching band that has become an essential element to one inner-city neighborhood


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Thomas Pop Sadler is the program director of the Greenville Combined Community Youth Organization.

Thomas "Pop" Sadler is the program director of the Greenville Combined Community Youth Organization.

It started with $400.

That $400 bought two bass drums, and those bass drums gave a group of kids a hobby. That hobby helped to change a community for the better.

Thomas "Pop" Sadler, program director of the Greenville Combined Community Youth Organization, bought the drums in 1991 with the $400 in Greenville's Neighborhood Association Fund. It wasn't easy to convince other community members to spend the fund's entire contents on two drums, but Pop and his wife, Marie, did it.

Pop played the drums when he was in school, and the neighborhood kids knew it. They showed off when he was around, tapping and beating on chairs and upside-down buckets. One day, on a whim, he took a few of the kids to a nearby music store to look at drum sets. When he saw the excitement in their faces, he knew just looking wasn't enough.

And so, Greenville CYO Marching Corp was born. "It was the most ragged group of kids you've ever seen, but they had pride," says Pop. "It makes a big difference to expose kids to some type of music."

***

Pop grew up in Greenville -- an area near downtown now bordered by Oaklawn Avenue, Seaboard Street, Statesville Avenue, and the Brookshire Freeway -- as did his mother and grandmother. In those days, it was, Pop says, a slum neighborhood. The streets were lined with shotgun houses, and drugs and crime weren't uncommon.

Still, he says, it was a great place to raise a family. Community members looked after each other. When the city decided to tear down the neighborhood in the late 1960s to construct the Brookshire Freeway, residents were heartbroken. "I vowed never to come back," says Pop.

Of course, that's a promise Pop didn't keep. He and his wife moved back after some houses were rebuilt because, Marie says, they were young enough to start over and had deep roots there. Before long, though, the Sadlers realized old issues still plagued the area. In 1989, one young teen killed another on a nearby playground after an argument concerning a gold necklace.

That incident served as a wake-up call for the community, and a call to action for Pop and Marie.

***

From 1991 through 1996, the community organization and adjoining marching corps was run out of the Sadler household. In its earliest days, the organization consisted of the Sadlers and nine neighborhood kids. Before long, the original nine brought friends, and then those friends brought friends. The number multiplied to 40 in no time. The Sadlers helped with homework, held band practices, and served as mentors and surrogate parents.

"Some came just to have a place to go," says Marie. "They were just looking for something to be a part of."

Soon, Pop and Marie began looking for grants. They wanted to expose the kids to new activities and places and ideas, but couldn't afford to do so out of their own pockets. Little by little, they applied for and received grants that helped get the organization off the ground. The marching corps began traveling to competitions up and down the East Coast. A computer-literacy program was started. Trips to nearby cultural attractions became possible. In 1995, the CYO received its IRS 501(c)3 nonprofit status.

The CYO eventually outgrew the Sadlers' home. At one point, Marie had new carpet installed that came with a 20-year guarantee. Within a year, it was ruined from the sheer volume of foot traffic. Another time, she came home to find that Pop had replaced her piano with a computer station for the kids. It was time, she decided, to find a new home for the organization.

***

In 1996, a few larger grants allowed the Sadlers to purchase a Greenville house and make it into the CYO hub. Everything there is centered on creating productive, well-rounded individuals. There is a computer lab and small stage where kids can practice class presentations. In the summertime, the CYO and Sylvan cosponsor a daily program that's a mix of math, art, and cultural learning, reading, and physical activity. During the school year, a Sylvan tutor visits every Saturday to help kids in areas where they may have fallen behind.

On hot summer days, it's easy to imagine kids spending their days at pools or malls or movie theaters. On chilly Saturday mornings during the school year, it's difficult to imagine them anywhere but in bed. Not Pop's kids. They eagerly assemble at the CYO year round, ready to learn and practice and play.

During a particularly stuffy summer day, the CYO is as full of activity as ever. In a large room at the front of the house, kids are clustered together in small groups of five or six, making crafts. In the back, several six-year-old girls hold whispered conversations as they settle in for naptime. Teenagers acting as junior counselors help to oversee the activities at the camp, which is for ages six to twelve. Pop and Marie are everywhere at once. They are always in demand, whether it's to admire an art project or settle a squabble.

While the CYO's focus is decidedly educational, music is still at its heart. The marching corps practices on Mondays and Wednesdays, and a retired band director teaches a horns class every Tuesday and Thursday. Everyone gets the chance to play an instrument. First, Pop determines who's interested, and then who has rhythm. Everyone who wants to participate starts at the bottom, usually playing cymbals, and then slowly works up to playing other instruments.

"It instills discipline," says Pop. "It's important for young kids to have the ability to focus, and music gives them that."

While the group doesn't travel as much as it used to (at one point, the kids were doing more than eighty performances a year), the marching corps still performs often in local churches, schools, and parades. "This may be the only time these kids get to be on the floor performing," says Pop. "That's why we keep doing it. They need to know they can be good at something—it doesn't matter what."

***

Today, Greenville isn't what it used to be. A well-kept, ten-acre park sits at the center of the neighborhood. The Greenville Recreation Center offers track and field, basketball, and baseball leagues. The streets are clean, and Oaklawn Elementary sits nearby.

The walls in the CYO are lined with black-and-white photos of the original Greenville. They remind Pop, and others, of how far the community has come.

The CYO serves a large part of the Greenville community (more than fifty families), but Pop knows there is still work to be done and people to reach. Charlotte's most recent Neighborhood Quality of Life Study shows that Greenville's crime rate is above the city's average, and the unemployment rate is high.

In this economic climate, grants don't come as easily as they used to. Marie says there is much more competition with larger organizations, on top of the fact that there's less money to go around. In September, when a county grant runs out, the CYO will be without funding.

"We've always made do with what we have," says Pop. "We don't need fancy things."

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