Millions served

"Millions served" Continued...

Issue: "Street warfare," April 7, 2007

That building opens onto the enormous aquatic facility where Kahmyah likes to swim. The pool deck's west gate leads out of the warm sunshine into the chill of a full-size ice rink where skaters spin and hockey teams compete. And that leads on to the complex containing a sanctuary that doubles as a performing-arts theater, more classrooms, and a 10,000-volume community library.

About 2,400 people a day take advantage of recreational activities and classes, including religious, educational, and cultural enrichment classes such as Scouting, a teen Bible study, creative writing, and niche fare like "Grassology," a class on bluegrass music. The staff is warm and welcoming, but there are rules-no cursing, for example, no gang attire nor even inappropriate logos.

Kids here "are very respectful, not out of control like some places you go," said Tosh Michael, 41, a disabled man who uses the gym facilities. "I used to teach basketball at a YMCA, so I'm pretty much an authority on that."

So scrupulously maintained is every square inch of the Kroc Center that the single cracked paving stone in front of the athletic field seems a freakish anomaly, like a blemish on a beauty queen. That's the point, said Capt. John Van Cleef, who took over as director last summer: "The subtlety that Joan Kroc wanted infused into the center was 'excellence.' She wanted the rich kid and the poor kid, the senior and the middle-aged person to have access to the same quality."

In the area where the Kroc Center sits, one in five households exists below the poverty line, more than a third are headed by single parents, and 22 percent of adult residents never finished high school. Situated on San Diego's far eastern border, the aging neighborhood was a bit of a forgotten land, too far from downtown for residents to have access to the social services common in urban cores. Before the Kroc Center came, owners of a hodgepodge collection of strip malls and office buildings suffered with occupancy rates of around 30 percent. Buildings had fallen into disrepair. And in a city where home prices are among the nation's highest, zip codes in this grid lagged far behind.

Since the Kroc Center opened, building occupancy has shot up to 95 percent and the area is becoming a magnet for first-time homebuyers, according to Van Cleef. "We can't scientifically attribute those improvements to the center. But we know that the infusion of $57 million and 350 jobs into this neighborhood has helped."

A one-year center membership costs between $240 per adult to $588 per family, with separate youth and senior rates. That's a hefty chunk for low-income residents. To bridge the gap, Joan Kroc, before her death, increased the center's endowment in order to fund full and partial scholarships so that all neighborhood residents, regardless of income, can use it.

Planning is underway for a center in East Detroit, where most kids have just three changes of scenery: home, school, and the streets. Abandoned houses shelter junkies and dealers. In the area's tumbledown city parks, weeds overrun basketball courts. Common areas are littered with syringes and "adult items you wouldn't want kids to have access to," said Russ Russell, the Salvation Army's Detroit director of development.

At a town hall meeting, when the mayor asked kids what they'd most like to have in their neighborhood, they said fewer drug houses and better street lights so that they could get home safely after dark. "It's something you or I are not used to, to have to live in that situation," said Russell.

Russell is already factoring in lessons learned in San Diego. For example, planners studying the economics of East Detroit have found that the most the center will be able to charge is $100 per family. That means the center will need an endowment of at least $50 million to ensure that it is largely self-supporting. To build that nest egg, Russell and his team are breaking new ground in Salvation Army fundraising.

"We are experts at mass fundraising: the $10 check, the $25 check, the handful of change tossed in the kettle," he said. "But we're not experts with large donors. Here in Detroit, we're raising money from people who've never made large gifts to an organization before and talking to people we've never talked to before."

As the San Diego center seemed to buoy the neighborhood around it, Russell predicts that his center will function as a catalyst for change. And how will inner-city Detroiters receive the Army's Christ-centered mission? "That's not a problem in the inner city," he observed. "The folks who are more disadvantaged here, their hearts are so dependent on God."


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