Features

Millions served

Charity | Community centers launched by McDonald's heiress spread help and hope

Issue: "Street warfare," April 7, 2007

SAN DIEGO- Three years old and decked out in a pink and green bikini, Kahmyah Stuart ducks below the surface of a turquoise pool at San Diego's Kroc Center and flippers away like a seal. Trouble is, Kahmyah doesn't know how to swim with her head above water. Neither has she realized the importance of coming up for air. So her grandmother, Kim Ervin, 45, trails her, bounding along the bottom of the pool to be there when Kahmyah, inevitably, pops up sputtering.

"She's fearless," says her great-grandmother, Anita King, 65, watching poolside. "She's just go-go-go. She doesn't realize what can happen."

Indeed, Kahmyah does not yet realize what has happened to her family. Ervin's 24-year-old daughter, who lives in Oakland, has relinquished custody of Kahmyah and her sister, Kaleah, 1, to King, who lives in San Diego. Kahmyah's mom is "going through some things, trying to do something for herself, going to school, working," says King, a slim and regal African-American who wears her hair slicked back into a ponytail and looks 15 years younger than she is. "I have custody as long as it takes, until-" she pauses, then finishes this way: "-when and if she gets herself together."

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That leaves King with three people to care for: her mentally retarded adult sister-for whom she provides full-time in-home care-and her great-granddaughters. So King was relieved to learn about the Salvation Army's Ray and Joan Kroc Center. Ervin, visiting from Oakland, happened by one day and saw the aquatic facility. Three underwater swimming trips later, she learned that the center also has a Head Start daycare program that will accept Kahmyah and Kaleah on a part-time basis.

"I'm taking care of them by myself," King said. "I don't get many breaks."

By all accounts, McDonald's heiress Joan Kroc would have been pleased that the legacy she left in the care of the Salvation Army is helping people like Anita King. In 2000, Kroc funded and endowed the state-of-the-art community center that sits in the geographic crease between San Diego and the lower-income city-burbs of La Mesa and El Cajon. Before her death in 2003, Kroc would drop by the center unannounced just to see whether it was, as she'd envisioned, functioning as a "beacon on a hill" for the disadvantaged-offering some family services but emphasizing cultural and recreational enrichment.

She must have liked what she saw: Kroc meticulously planned and executed what is thought to be the largest-ever gift to a private charity-$1.5 billion-to be used in the construction and endowment of 34 more centers across the nation, each tailored to the needs of the community that surrounds it.

Now centers in Detroit, San Francisco, Atlanta, Phoenix, Philadelphia, and elsewhere are in various stages of development, and Salvation Army officers across the nation are looking to San Diego to see what went right and, at first, wrong.

The very fact of Kroc's gift was initially a subject of fierce debate within the Army itself. William Booth, a Methodist minister in Britain, in 1865 founded an evangelical mission to London's inner-city poor, and in 1878 rechristened it the Salvation Army. The group's core purpose: "To preach the gospel of Jesus Christ and to meet human needs in His name without discrimination."

More than a century later, when the group received Kroc's astonishing gift, "We asked ourselves, are we going to be able to stay true to our mission?" said Maj. George Hood, Salvation Army's national community relations and development secretary. "It was a huge gift and there are some who have said, 'This is going to change the Salvation Army.'"

For example, some said Kroc's cultural and recreational focus would dilute the Army's image as caretakers of the poor. Others worried that the fundraising required to generate operating dollars-as much as $70 million a year-would siphon money from other Salvation Army projects, such as its trademark "corps centers" that aid the elderly, prisoners, disaster victims, and struggling families.

Indeed, the San Diego center struggled for a couple of years, Hood said. "We had opened this beautiful new building, but learned that the endowment had to be beefed up in order to generate dollars to cover operating expenses."

"Beautiful new building" may be an understatement. At the Kroc Center, a ribbon of sidewalk runs nearly two city blocks, connecting offices with a sanctuary-theater-library complex. In between lay the components of a civic dream: first, the Head Start daycare center and its colorful playground with a pretend fire engine and a friendly caterpillar-tunnel; then, a soccer-sized athletic field surrounded by a challenge course and rock-climbing tower; next to that, a cavernous building housing a fitness center and three full-size basketball courts.

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