In darkness and on a glass-strewn playground, the Mighty Eastside Rockers march to a beat heard nightly throughout the Greenmount West community.
The Rockers, whose ages range from 5 to 17, step feverishly to a cadence of hope, dreams and pride in a pocket of East Baltimore where goals often are overshadowed by drugs and destruction.
In less than six months, the 78-piece unit has become the community's glittering centerpiece -- without ever marching in a major parade.
"Some of the kids' parents drink and they get involved with that dope stuff," said Patricia Williams, organizer and founder of the Rockers. "But they stop long enough to support their child when they're marching out here.
"The kids really just want to be here and want to have something to do. They're just looking for some love."
Many of the youngsters are culturally disadvantaged and come from troubled or broken homes, Williams said. One boy lives in a house where a shooting recently occurred. A girl worked as a squeegee kid to support her mother's drug habit. Many have never been out of the city; one has never been out the of neighborhood -- even to go to the zoo.
And one girl cries after practice each night. She is unhappy at home because her mother and older sister ignore her. "I don't have no one to talk to anymore," she said.
To many of the band members, the daily band practice highlights their day.
Daaiyah Bryant, a tall and slender 14-year-old, said she has seldom missed a practice.
"It keeps me out of trouble. If I wasn't here, I'd be sitting on the front step, probably in a fight by now," Bryant said. "I learn how to march, keep peace between one another and how to respect each other."
Williams, who has a grandson in the Rockers, formed the band in June when six children asked her to "make a band." The numbers grew steadily with "almost a new kid everyday" despite strict conduct rules and mandatory good grades, she said.
Some kids have dropped out, while others have begun studying harder in order to join.
"It's something that's important to them and to the community. Everyone wants to get involved," Williams said.
The Rockers survive on donations, which are used to buy uniforms, pennants, drums and banners. Contributions have been received from local businesses and interested parties, including Oriole Assistant General Manager Frank Robinson, who has come to watch them practice.
The uniforms will be worn during their first parade, in tomorrow's Thanksgiving Day parade downtown.
"In this area, a lot of parents can't afford uniforms that cost $55 each," Williams said, adding, "If they are to march, we have to receive donations. And a lot of people have given."
But organizers and parents worry about the approaching winter and whether the band could survive until spring if bad weather severely curtailed outdoor practice. There are no nearby indoor facilities available, and Williams said she does not plan to have them march in the snow or cold.
Williams hopes that even if the band can't march, the members can get together for "rap sessions."
The city has offered use of a recreation center in Harford Heights, but Williams and other parents feel that is too far for the children to go.
Nancy Carter, who has two daughters in the Rockers, stands on the sideline and seldom misses a practice at the current site behind the Mildred Monroe Elementary School.
"Most of these kids would be hanging out in the streets right now, maybe even until 11 o'clock, if they weren't here," Carter said. "We have drugs in this area, no question about that. This gives my girls a chance to see a positive side of life."
Carter knows her daughters well. One has a behavior problem and the other suffers from a lack of motivation. Performing with the Rockers has proven beneficial to both.
"I know where they are, and I know they're all right. It gives me a lot less to worry about because I would be out in the streets looking for them," Carter said.