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Millions served

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

Millions served

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."

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.

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."

Not so in San Diego. A 2006 statistical study by the research firm First View found that the "likely faith involvement level and preference for historic Christian religious affiliations is extremely low when compared to national averages." But the same study found that residents in the area did express some church-program preferences that were likely to exceed national averages. Those included sports and camping programs, cultural programs including art and music-all of which are available at the Kroc Center.

San Diego director Van Cleef, who has wrestled with the mission-creep aspect of Joan Kroc's gift, notes the bridge-building potential of such demographics. "Is hockey our mission? Are drama troops our mission? Yes, they are now," he said. "All of these things give us opportunities to connect people with the Army's core mission of 'soup, soap, and salvation.'" The three-S formula refers to the human hierarchy of social-services needs-physical, esteem, and spiritual-as envisioned by founder William Booth.

To fulfill that vision, the San Diego center offers family services, including emergency financial assistance, a parent aide program, kids' summer camps, Christmas toy and food assistance, and parenting classes. It also leases chunks of its sprawling facility to various community and government groups.

One is Project B.R.O., an abstinence course that is part of a San Diego juvenile court program for troubled teens. In the gym building, about 20 kids crowd around foosball and ping-pong tables. Others are playing pickup basketball or doing homework. Mostly black and Latino, they are dressed for a hip-hop video or a night in the 'hood. But, as their probation officer, "Mama J," points out, they know that the Kroc center is definitely not the 'hood.

"Look at them," she said, pointing to three boys who are quietly reading. "Their backs are exposed. They could never do that in the park or in the 'hood. In the 'hood, you sit with your back against a wall."

Mama J, a probation officer for 22 years, shepherds the kids, mostly boys ages 13 to 17 who've been in trouble for theft, drugs, or gang violence. When kids complete Project B.R.O., they receive a free membership to the Kroc Center. "Most of my kids could never afford something like this," said Mama J, who didn't have her department's permission to speak with WORLD, and therefore did not use her real name.

She said her charges "know that the 'other half' lives differently than they do. The shame is that a lot of them are hopeless." The Kroc center, she added, exposes them to sports and culture that people in other income groups take for granted. "It gives them something to aspire to, and even a place just to meet where no one is up in their face or wearing colors."

Mama J is impressed with the hospitality of Kroc Center officials and managers. "Do you know how many places, if you call them up and say, 'Hey, I want to bring 30 emotionally disturbed, criminal kids on probation to your place,' will say yes? Nobody."

Lynn Vincent

Lynn Vincent

Lynn is a senior writer for WORLD Magazine and the best-selling author of 10 non-fiction books.