California, here they come.

The Ballou Senior High School Marching Band will almost certainly surpass its goal of $70,000 and make it to Carson, Calif., on Nov. 20 for the Home Depot national band competition.

The outpouring of support included a $25,000 challenge grant from Lockheed Martin. The challenge will be met at 4 p.m. today when Gina Adams, a Ballou graduate and corporate vice president for government affairs at FedEx, returns to her alma mater with a company check for $25,000.

Other major contributions were made by William C. Smith Co., which gave $20,000, and Embassy Suites Hotels, which reserved free rooms for the band in Carson. D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams gave $10,000 from the city.

The final tally is expected to reveal deep and widespread support for the Southeast Washington school, where 40 percent of the students are eligible for free lunches. There will be more to say about those who contributed when the band departs for Carson.

For now, suffice it to say that band director Darrell Watson and his students are being transformed by the generosity, even as Ballou's image is receiving a boost from the band's celebrity.

At the start of the last school year, Ballou was evacuated for several weeks after a student took a vial of mercury from an unlocked science lab and, with other students, spread mercury throughout the school. Morale at the school plummeted further when two students were shot and killed -- one off campus, the other in the cafeteria.

But students no longer hang their heads at Ballou.

"The kids have a certain walk to them now, and they feel like they really matter," said Watson, 34, who has directed the band for nine years. "If they see an argument between classmates about to heat up, they are willing to get involved and help cool things down. They don't want anything to jeopardize this opportunity. They are tired of the negative. They say it's time to show the nation what Ballou is really all about."

Last month, the school band was one of eight selected by Home Depot to compete in the Battle of the High School Marching Bands. A field of 110 entrants from across the country had vied for a spot by sending a videotape of their best performances.

In 2001, Ballou band members had to pass on an invitation to perform in China because they could not raise the $100,000 needed for the trip. Before the media began highlighting their struggles to get to Carson, some band members were wondering whether they would be disappointed again. After holding carwashes and selling dinners for several weeks, they had raised only $1,000.

With 86 members -- 55 instrumentalists, 13 flag girls, 15 dancers and three banner carriers -- the Ballou marching band is among the smallest in the area. But what it lacks in size, it makes up for in soul.

Anna Myers, 17, a piccolo player and president of the band, personifies the group's spirit. She's full-figured, but she unabashedly joins the dancers during the halftime show and brings the crowd to its feet with a James Brown-style split.

When a band competition at Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium was canceled because of a bomb scare last week, the Ballou band ended up in a parking lot face-off with a musical powerhouse, the Milford Mill Academy Marching Band from Baltimore.

Unbeknown to the Ballou students, Melvin Miles, director of the famed Morgan State band, was checking them out. "He came over afterwards and said that for such a little band, we sounded beautiful and had held our ground against a band twice our size," Watson recalled. "Here's a guy who can give you a scholarship to college. So I told my students, 'You never know who's watching, so always be on your best behavior.' "

Ballou plans to send about 100 people -- band members, staff members and chaperons -- to California.

In the meantime, band members are keeping a demanding schedule. On Saturday, they washed dozens of cars. The night before, the band performed during a football game between Ballou and Riverdale Baptist, helping to inspire the home team to a 52-0 win.

The band also took part in last week's Light the Night Walk, the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society's nationwide event to raise awareness of blood cancers and raise funds for research.

"It's important for us to be active in our community," Watson said.

What goes around comes around.

E-mail: milloyc@washpost.com