DeAndre Lee cast a commanding presence inside North Charleston's Ferndale Community Center.
The burly 25-year-old's voice reverberated inside the gymnasium as he counted down from 10. A group of students fumbled with their gear — bass, tenor and snare drums — in a race against the clock. Lee took a moment after reaching "one," letting silence, save for the clatter of a marching harness hitting the floor, envelop the room.
"You should be at attention," he said. "I didn't call it because half of you aren't strapped up. That's two laps after practice."
Scenes like this play out every school night for the duration of the academic year. The students are members of The Music Battery, a North Charleston nonprofit that works with at-risk youth by providing homework help, meals and musical instruction in a drumline. Lee is their head instructor.
Kayla Dorsey, a seventh-grader at Morningside Middle School, has been a part of The Music Battery for the past six months. She plays the tenor drums and is a captain.
“Personally, (my) favorite part is being the captain. You just help everybody," Dorsey said. "If you have musical experience or just like music at all, come down and join.”
Ryan Lee, a seventh-grader at Morningside Middle School who plays the snare drum, said being a part of the group helps him set goals and is a fun way to spend time after school.
The fledgling organization has grown tremendously in the three years since it was founded, said Kris Manning, one of its co-founders. Now they're looking to take the next steps.
The mission, Manning says, is simple: Give at-risk kids a safe place to get their homework done, provide healthy meals and make sure they're occupied and off the streets during the hours when it's most dangerous, 4-7 p.m.
“We want to expose them to as many cool opportunities as possible,” she said. “When you see them play, you can see their pride.”
The Music Battery has played numerous gigs around the Charleston area — parades, Piccolo Spoleto, corporate events, a ceremony for former Mayor Joe Riley and Mayor John Tecklenburg’s inauguration.
Manning started The Music Battery with her business partner Braeden Kershner. The two own Black Tie Music Academy, a for-profit school, and were workshopping ideas for a nonprofit and hit on creating a program that would reach at-risk youth.
Expenses are minimal, Manning said. Lee is paid a salary for his work. The only other expenses are transportation, equipment and food for the students.
Each day, the students come to Ferndale Community Center and finish their homework before they go to the gymnasium to warm up. They practice drumming and marching routines and are provided one meal, courtesy of the Lowcountry Food Bank.
But in order to reach more students, funding needs to increase, she said.
Manning hopes businesses can provide corporate sponsorships that will allow her group to take in more students, get better equipment and hire more instructors.
The more kids they reach, the more positive effects will ripple out, Manning said. Participating in The Music Battery is free and no prior musical experience is required.
The 24 students currently enrolled in the program are mostly from Morningside Middle School, but word, it seems, is spreading.
"It's in North Charleston schools," Lee said. "It's in Dorchester County schools, Berkeley County schools. ... After school there (was) nothing to do but to get in trouble and now after school there’s nothing to do but to come here. It’s just wonderful. I’m just blessed to be here with them."
And Music Battery members are beginning to see rewards.
All 24 students are passing their classes and a dinner is in the works to recognize those who are getting As and Bs, Manning said.
For Lee, who grew up in the Ferndale community and who had Kershner as a drumline instructor while at Stall High School, giving back to children and providing a stable environment for them is a major motivator.
“The biggest thing was the education," he said. "Some of them weren’t disciplined enough to follow directions and now that they have someone that’s going to help them in a different way ... I’ve seen the character grow. I’ve seen the grades grow. I’ve seen them grow, and not just them. I’ve seen myself grow.”
Donald Taylor, a ninth-grader at Garrett Academy of Technology, has no doubt that The Music Battery has been a force for good.
“It has helped me learn more about drums and teamwork," Taylor said. "It made me be more energetic."
Taylor, who plays the bass drum, is one of the group's captains. He encourages any students who are interested in music, or who want a good after school program, to attend.
“It’s going to be hard but throughout the time that you’re here, you get the meet new people and you get some leadership status things too," he said. "It’s very hard at the beginning but if you come to me, I’ll help you.”