Sacramento - You may have heard the phrase, "Marching to the beat of a different drummer", but oddly enough, it has never applied to drum lines.
The goal for a drum line is one, unified sound but, to add another layer of irony, the mantra of the Grant High School drum line embodies the meaning of that phrase: "Not following the paths of others."
According to the state, Grant High is one the worst performing schools in Sacramento, with low graduation rates and some of the poorest families trying to make ends meet.
Unfortunately, environments and neighborhoods like that makes it easy for young adults to get into trouble. That's where the drum line and its instructor, James Van Buren, comes in.
"The kids that I'm with 24/7, I love them all, none more than the other," said Van Buren, affectionately known as Mr. V. "I'm very protective of them."
"A lot of gang members come out here, they sell drugs; but as the drum line, we protect ourselves, we look for each other," said senior Tevin Lee, a snare and quad player. He practiced for years just for a chance to be on the drum line, which became a second home; if not his first.
"My mom and dad aren't home, I don't know where they are," Lee said. "I have no type of connection with them at all."
"Realistically, they sleep on this floor," said Van Buren, "There's times that I'm doing some stuff, they'll say. 'I don't want to go home', and they'll fall asleep right here."
There are more than a dozen students on the drum line. For some, it's a safe place, and for others it's an incentive, not just to stay out of trouble, but to keep their grades up too.
"If we have bad grades, he'll say we need to get that together," said snare player Taevena Henderson. "[Mr. V] will say, 'Don't worry about the drum line, worry about school, school is more important. Get your school stuff together, then you can come back'."
When asked if Van Buren looked at the students like his own children, he said, "Oh, without a doubt. I mean, how can you spend that much time and not? They're sleeping here, I feed them, there's times where we do three or four gigs in the same day."
The Opportunity of a Lifetime
The Grant Union High School drum line started just for music at football games, but what it became is getting national attention. They've been invited to play at next year's Independence Day Parade in Washington D.C.
Those gigs Van Buren mentioned? They were trying to raise enough money to go -- until Good Morning America's Robin Roberts found out and asked them to play a private party in Hollywood. So Van Buren took the kids on an all-day bus ride to Los Angeles, ready to perform on their biggest stage yet.
There never was a party.
It was just a ruse to get them to Hollywood. Instead, the group was dropped off at the Jimmy Kimmel Live studio, and given the biggest surprise of their lives.
After taking Van Buren onto the set to watch the show, an ABC producer let the kids in on the secret. "So I know that you think you're here to perform at a party," he whispered to them in a huddle, "But you're not."
Screaming with excitement, the kids found out they were part of an elaborate surprise, to bring Van Buren on the set of Jimmy Kimmel while taping for an ABC special called, "Thank You, America!"
One chaperone, Denny Augustine, got caught up in the moment.
"I'm so proud of them, so proud," he said through tears. "These kids, I get goose bumps, I'm getting choked up, I'm gonna cry here, but it's a good cry."
The kids were huddled down the halls of the studio and lined up behind a curtain. On the other side, Robin Roberts and Jimmy Kimmel began to talk about Thanksgiving and what they're thankful for. Then, as perfectly planned, they segued into a conversation about teachers, surprising Van Buren as they mentioned him by name.
He was pulled from the audience, connected with a microphone, then placed on the couch that thousands of celebrities have sat on before.
"This was really fun, bringing him here to Jimmy Kimmel," said Robin Roberts after the taping. "I don't how you guys did that, keeping them in the dark. But when Jimmy and I said, 'Oh, yeah, uh, Mr. V', and he's looking around thinking, 'I just saw celebrities there', no, you're the celebrity now!"
After talking about his love for his students and that he's honored many consider him a second father, the curtain pulled open, revealing the drum line. They marched onto the stage, surprising Mr. V.
That though, was the first of many surprises.
Marriott International heard the drumline's inspiring story and wanted to inspire others. Not only will the hotel chain provide all the hotel rooms for the group's trip to Washington D.C. next year, they also gave them a $20,000 check to help with transportation costs.
Community Chevrolet, in Burbank, also wanted to do something special just for Van Buren. So, Roberts stood next to Van Buren, pointed to a television monitor and said, "That is your new car!" Outside the studio, parked on Hollywood Boulevard, was a brand new Chevy Equinox with a bright red bow on top.
ABC paid for all the taxes.
While you could tell Van Buren was overwhelmed with gratitude, it was obvious that one surprise meant the most: A video testimonial from his students, telling him how much they love him, and how much they've grown because of him.
"Come on, you have a group of kids, they've never told you they love you, and then they're telling me through the lens of a camera, it made me feel so good, I almost felt like crying. But, come on, I'm not gonna cry on national TV," Van Buren laughed. "It's not gonna happen!"
But what did happen, was the world finally getting to see Grant High, the drum line and others, in the light they deserve.
And most importantly, how Van Buren sees them.
"I see a group of kids that see the possibility of actually having a bright future," he said. "It's beautiful."
How to Help
Even with Marriott's generous gift the Grant drum line, the group is still short of the money needed for their trip to Washington D.C.
If you'd like to help, please donate at the group's YouCaring page. Cameras will be with the group in D.C. to document their trip and show how much your donations mean to the students.