L.J. Bush, center, helps his students set up their drums before a drumline performance Feb. 4 at Mitchelville for a Freedom Celebration Day event. PHOTOS BY LYNNE COPE HUMMELL

On a chilly Saturday morning in February, seven young people, accompanied by their teacher, all bundled up in hoodies with matching T-shirts on top, lined up with their drums to play for a gathering crowd at Historic Mitchelville Park on Hilton Head Island. 

The event, in honor of Black History Month, was Freedom Celebration Day, which recognized Beaufort’s Robert Smalls and his place in American history.

The young folks were part of the opening entertainment for the day. But these children are more than drummers in a line.

They are part of a nonprofit organization called COIN – an acronym for Changing Our Image Now. 

The organization was founded by L.J. Bush, son of longtime Bluffton leaders Leon and Laura A. Bush, to mentor young people and encourage them to find their purpose in life, and to help their parents find ways to assist their children on that journey. The group serves young people from Bluffton and Hilton Head Island.

“We are trying to put these kids in front of different opportunities,” Bush said. “Drumline is the hook to get them interested. Then we expose them to other opportunities.”

The drumline is led by Keith Cross, teacher and mentor, a transplant from Ohio just four years ago.

Bush and Cross met playing basketball. “He asked me, ‘In a perfect world, what would you want to do?’ And I said, ‘Have a music school and a drumline.’”

Bush replied, “I have some kids.” 

The drumline got its start with 5-gallon buckets upside down on a picnic table, said Keith Cross, the music director. Then they moved to drum pads, which had more resonance.

Then, the group was invited to play for a Crescendo event last October, and they really needed to come up with drums, Cross said. He and Bush found a woman in Florida who had drums to share. “This lady in Fort Lauderdale said her school had closed because of Covid, and she had no use for the drums,” Bush said. “She had exactly what we needed.”

Bush drove to Florida and picked them up.

The group practices most Sundays at Bluffton Community Center.

But playing drums is just part of the equation for the students. They are involved in other programs offered by COIN and learning from other experiences.

“We took them to the African American Civil Rights Museum in Atlanta,” Bush said. “The parents have been very supportive, and they go on trips with us.”

One of those parents, Connie Whitehead, has high praise for Bush and for COIN. She has three sons, 9-year-old twins Camden and Kendall and 14-year-old Dominic, who play in the drumline.

“I just want to acknowledge how much work L.J. and Keith are doing,” she said. “The time they spend – it’s just their passion.”

Whitehead said beyond the fun, the meetings for parents are extremely helpful.

“We have gotten information about scholarships and how to get ready for college,” she said. “It has lifted a burden for us, about how to get three boys through college. It has been eye-opening.”

Bush said that getting information to parents is a big part of what COIN does.

“We try to get families the information they need to help them be successful,” he said.

The organization offers personal development and coaching programs, seeking to help young people elevate themselves. The philosophy, as posted on the COIN website, states: “We believe an essential component of COIN is cognitive restructuring. It is used to counter negative perceptions based on a history disconnection from the constantly changing Lowcountry.”

The goal is to “Break the generation of social and economic poverty cycle by finding sustained career opportunities for 100% of COIN students each year.”

Alandria Kennedy, 17, a senior at Hilton Head Island High School, said being part of the drumline and COIN has been beneficial to her in various ways, including helping her build confidence.

“I wrote a song and performed it for the first time at the Black Lives Matter program at school,” she said. 

Cross said his long-range goal is to someday have a fine arts school that offers summer clinics and a camp. 

“It will be a place where kids can come and learn and have fun with their friends,” he said. “They can be part of a community that is doing positive things.

In line with that dream is to grow the drumline.

“We hope to grow to so many that we have to go buy more drums,” Bush said. “Our target is 25 If we get to where we need more instruments, that would b a good problem to have.”

Drumline is open to anyone between about age 5 to 18, he said, and free to join.

For more information, visit changingourimagenow.org.