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Black Diamonds dance troupe members find haven amid public housing
Outlet helps Gainesville girls find hope, focus on academics
The Black Diamonds dance troupe will perform in the Cross the Line Dance Competition Saturday in Gainesville.

Watch the troupe perform on Facebook.

Cross the Line Dance Competition

When: 1-4 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 5

Where: 610 Grove St., Gainesville.

How much: $5, children 5 and younger free 

Dekia Boone doesn’t go out much anymore.

The groups of young men shooting dice outside her apartment, the smell of marijuana and conspicuous drug deals charge the air with negativity. Sometimes, they say or do things that make her uncomfortable. So she rarely leaves her bedroom.

The isolation has made things worse, so much so she’s stopped attending class and was recently withdrawn from the school system. It seems like the bad keeps piling up, and there’s nothing she can do but turn up the television, or plug her ears with music, waiting out this gradual tide of trouble at her doorstep.

But now Dekia is coming out of her shell. She’s feeling good about the future. Slowly but surely, on the strength of a single idea that’s built momentum for her and a dozen girls in the public housing where she lives, the 16-year-old girl has found redemption.

The Black Diamonds are a dance team that meets several times a week at the Gainesville Housing Authority’s community center on Atlanta Street. It’s an exciting time for members of the group as they gear up for their first-ever competition on Dec. 5.

By practicing their hip-hop and gospel worship dance moves in the community building — a communal structure situated amongst more than a dozen of the brick apartment buildings on Atlanta Street — the girls have found an activity to keep them positive, volunteer coach Lisa Chester said.

“They are surrounded by so much negativity here, and it’s not the people who live (on Atlanta Street), because this is a good community,” Chester said. “There’s a lot of negative going on from people who don’t live here. They bring it here. And that makes it hard for these girls because they don’t feel safe walking around in their own backyard.”

Added Chester: “Now these girls have found something good in their lives. I tell them, this (public housing) is your environment, but you don’t have to become this situation. I teach them to overcome this situation. We work on building these girls up, so they’ll dream big.”

Chester, 35, knows the situation all too well. She too grew up in public housing. She lived in Harrison Square Apartments on the other side of Interstate 985.

At age 14, Chester got pregnant and gave birth to twin boys. As a 15-year-old single mother of two (Brequese and Brenquez Dukes), she struggled, but made it work. Her sons now are 20 years old, both enrolled at Lanier Technical College pursuing degrees in criminal justice and early childhood education.

Chester’s 13-year-old daughter, Kya Cobb, is a member of the Black Diamonds, and Chester herself is about to receive a degree in human services from University of North Georgia. Her time with the dance team on Atlanta Street actually started as an internship with Gainesville Housing Authority.

She said the dance team was already going strong before she arrived, but she offered mentorship to the girls.

“I’m just here to make sure they’re doing what they should,” Chester said. “We’re working on improving grades. You can dance all day, but if you ain’t got the education to go with it, you’re just dancing.”

What started as an internship, she said, has become so much more.

“I’m kind of stuck here,” Chester said, laughing. “These girls ... I’m their mom, their sister, their hairstylist. (The housing authority) went and tricked me into adopting 12 more kids.”

But in all truth, the girls mean the world to Chester. They vary in age, but most are teenagers.

Quisha Franks, 13, enjoys being a part of the Black Diamonds because “we stay out of trouble.”

Jaylin Johnson, 12, said that since the Black Diamonds formed, she and her peers have come a long way, both in dancing and academics.

“Before all of this, the grades didn’t really matter,” Johnson said. “Now, they do. Because we want to keep dancing.”

When it comes to scholastic performance, Chester runs a tight ship.

“We make sure everybody is always showing progress in their academics,” Chester said. “If you show up at practice and I find out your grades are lower than they were the previous week, you have to sit out practice.”

She said it gives students the motivation to constantly improve. And, that’s why Chester is taking Dekia Boone next week to Gainesville City Schools to try and get her enrolled in classes again.

Boone is ready to get back in the school system and graduate as soon as possible. Dancing, she said, is more than a hobby and an escape. She sees a possible career. If nothing else, something in a related field that can take her out of public housing.

“I’m really ready to move away from over here,” Boone said. “I’d like to be able to sit on my porch and not worry about nothing. I like to come outside in the mornings and just sit still and feel a little breeze on my skin. I can’t do that now, but that’s where I want to be someday.”

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