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Rho Chi Kobraz my Group of the Year
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Kaptin, Siren, Kare Bear, Venom and Professor. They sound like superhero names. And they are certainly heroes in my book.

Their real names are, respectively, Shakeem Colemen, Imani Simon, Deneshia Reid, Precious Williams and Shynell Wells.

They are the core members of Camden’s Rho Chi Kobraz and there is no way I could name anyone else my 2010 Group of the Year.

I’ve been following the Kobraz’ progress since the first step showcase I covered at Rhame Arena two years ago. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to make a return engagement -- but that hasn’t stopped me from grinning from ear to ear every time their mentor, Brian Mays of Trinity Apartment’s Family Outreach Ministries, calls to tell me how they’ve done in their latest competition.

The Kobraz have had quite a year. Some of you may not know the story. Early this spring, the team was all set and ready to go to its first-ever national competition in Nashville, Tenn. The money had been raised for the tour bus -- and paid. But the bus never showed up; the driver ran off with the money.

He was caught and prosecuted.

In the meantime, Mays was able to get hold of another bus operator and scraped the money together to still get the kids to Nashville barely in time to eat, get some sleep and get ready for the next day’s competition.

And then they blew the roof off Belmont University’s Curb Event Center, coming in second place against other high school and college step teams. More than half the team was made up of middle-schoolers.

It was a remarkable achievement, but they didn’t stop there. They would go on to the Disney Step Classic (see front page photo) -- and receive “excellent” ratings, the highest attainable.

A few weeks later they competed at Benedict College and won first place -- against a field made up of only college teams.

They even helped build a Habitat for Humanity house.

That’s the story, but I realized in writing them I didn’t know the kids.

Shakeem, Imani, Deneshia, Precious and Shynell are all Camden High School students.

Shakeem is the only boy in the core team and will be graduating half-way through the team’s 2011 season. Luckily, he’ll be here when the team hosts Camden’s next contest on March 12 and he’ll be with the team when it goes back to the Music City for a chance to take it all at nationals.

Shakeem is a story unto himself. The oldest of three kids, he lives with his great-grandmother and helps raise his 12-year-old sister and 9-year-old brother who are both on Camden’s junior step team, the Li’l Diamonds. He works at Wendy’s and loves science.

“I like the hands-on stuff -- watching the chemicals mix and flames,” Shakeem told me when I met with him, Deneshia, Precious and Brian and Roberta Mays recently.

When he isn’t stepping, Kaptin’s thinking about the music they’ll step to and the moves to form into routines -- when he isn’t eating. He said he eats anything, although he’s picky about seafood.

And he wants to be a nurse.

“I took a health services course at ATEC, got my medical terminology certificate and learned CPR,” Shakeem told me. “I liked it and got high Bs.”

He also interned at a local doctor’s office, getting the highest intern grades in the class. He plans to attend Francis Marion University.

Precious also wants to be a nurse. She’s much quieter than Shakeem, simply saying that “it looks like fun.” One of two freshmen on the team (Imani is the other), Precious, an only child, has teamed up with Shakeem to teach stepping to Baron DeKalb students every Wednesday. When she’s not stepping, Precious says she likes to spend time on the computer, primarily on Facebook, something I completely understand.

Deneshia, a sophomore, started stepping in middle school as Shakeem had a few years before her.

“I wanted to be on the RC Steppers,” said Deneshia, referring to the team’s prior name.

She had to wait a year, though, because of other activities she was into as a freshman.

Roberta Mays explained that because of the demands placed on the Kobraz practice schedule, members can’t participate in most team sports, Shakeem mentioned a new team member who chose the Kobraz over basketball.

That’s the level of commitment these young people have not just to the team in terms of competition, but in terms of being an extended family.

As Brian Mays put it: “You can see the bond ... see how they’ve overcome every situation. They’re learning life.”

Deneshia plans to extend that learning past high school into the Air Force -- a family tradition. (We learned by text message that Shynell, the other senior on the team, plans to join the Army.) Deneshia has an older brother in Columbia and an 11-year-old sister who’s on the Li’l Diamonds. She likes math “since I was little.”

Earlier this year, I said the Kobraz (and, yes, it’s taken me all this time to get the team’s name right, not to mention Shakeem’s last name and spelling of “Kaptin”) were the “better gang.”

Brian and I call them that to differentiate them from the gang that shot Michael Smith to death three years ago. While they didn’t really know him, Shakeem said he spoke to Michael in passing; Deneshia met him at a party the very night he died.

Michael’s legacy isn’t just anti-gang grants and programs: it’s real kids, like the ones with the superhero names from his high school. A step team that’s an example of not just excellence in artistry but excellence in life.

I can’t wait to see what they do next.