In white satin and silver sequins, the South Side Steppers Marching Unit ended their first year on a festive note yesterday.
They kicked, twirled, stepped and shimmied their way through Druid Hill Park on Baltimore Believe Day, a culmination of weeklong activities in the citywide anti-drug and anti-crime campaign.
An estimated 20,000 people attended the citywide event, which included motivational speakers, local and national entertainment and food.
Members of the 120-member South Side Steppers personify the $2 million Believe campaign, described by Mayor Martin O'Malley at yesterday's rally as a call to put "action behind faith" by volunteering as mentors, joining the Police Department or getting a family member or friend into drug treatment.
Leaders of the South Side Steppers started their work last summer -- even before the Believe campaign began -- by inviting children from the Cherry Hill, Lakeland, Brooklyn and Mount Winans neighborhoods to join a new marching band.
The idea was to create a structured activity to keep children off the streets.
Organizers have spent thousands of hours since then, developing routines, practicing, buying instruments and uniforms and trying to keep the members interested with field trips and skating parties.
"It was really hard, but it all paid off," said South Side Steppers director Cynthia Cockrell, 29, who founded the group with her assistant, Nickia Hubard.
"They're really enjoying it," Cockrell said of the unit members, who range in age from 3 to 21. "A lot of them have never even been here [Druid Hill Park] -- and South Baltimore is not that far away."
She said that group leaders have talked about the Believe anti-drug, anti-crime campaign with the marching unit members, and the members seem to have picked up on the message.
"A lot of them want to make things better, especially in their own communities," said Cockrell, who hoped to recruit more members at yesterday's festival. "When they see the parade like this, maybe they'll think, 'OK, I can be a part of it and go to other places.' They only know the street corners."
The Believe campaign began in April with an advertising blitz made possible through donations of money, ad time and ad space.
O'Malley opened yesterday's festival after the parade, wearing a black "Believe" T-shirt and black jeans.
"The ads that led to this are all about tapping into the great strength of our city," he told the crowd gathering shortly after noon for the festival. "It's about having the courage and the guts to believe in ourselves and our neighbors, to get involved in the future of our city."
Baltimore City Council President Sheila Dixon had a message for city children, who go back to school Tuesday.
"Believe in yourself that you can get the best grades," she said. "Turn the televisions off and open the books and believe that you can be successful."
Some of the festival-goers ate barbecue, fried fish and jerk chicken.
Others checked out the agencies and community groups that staffed booths at the event, including the Police Department's community relations division, the child care office of the city's Department of Recreation and Parks, and drug treatment facilities.
"I think [the Believe campaign] has instilled some encouragement to a lot of folks about getting treatment. And, we've been able to provide information about what they need to do to get help," said George Jiggets, a prevention analyst with Baltimore Substance Abuse Systems, which monitors drug treatment programs in the city.
"Sometimes it gets frustrating because of the number of slots and the people who need treatment," Jiggets said.
Sitting under a tree as her 3-year-old grandson played beside her, Brenda Perkins of Randallstown enjoyed the festive scene before her, but acknowledged that she was a bit confused by the Believe campaign.
"What are they supposed to believe in?" she asked. "I need to know specifically. Believe in yourself? Believe in others, believe in a parade, a good time?"