by Jessie Ammons
photograph by Travis Long
Sylvia Wiggins has always had a penchant for band music. But as a high school student, she couldn’t muster the courage to audition for her school’s mostly-Caucasian ensemble. “I told myself that one day I’d have a band where everyone can come,” says the founder and executive director of Helping Hand Mission, a nonprofit that provides food, clothing, furniture, shelter – and band music – to Southeast Raleigh.
Wiggins was working on an anti-gang initiative for Helping Hand when she remembered her adolescent hope and founded the mission’s marching band for 7- to 17-year-olds. “We have black kids, Hispanic kids, white kids. We want everyone to feel comfortable.”
The marching band fluctuates between 50 and 70 members, and teens must complete community service projects to join. No musical experience is required, and the band relies on donated instruments. “We practice a few times a week, but the kids hang out a lot, too. We have a lot of activities that … we don’t put under the title ‘practice,’ but are band-related. They dance all the time.” That dancing inspires the marching: Often, members compose and freestyle original music inspired by what’s on the radio.
Wiggins leads the troupe, despite an already-packed schedule running the nonprofit’s headquarters and shelter on Rock Quarry Road. For her, it’s a non-negotiable commitment. “Teens are my favorite kind of kid,” she says. “That’s the age when a lot of people give up on them, but I know what they can be. I like to see the outcome, when they realize their potential. Band is a safe place and a structured place.”