Kroc Center transforms surrounding neighborhood

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Salvation Army facility brings positive change to a San Diego community.

by Rebecca Go, San Diego Union-Tribune –

The Ray and Joan Kroc Corps Community Center in Rolando Heights has revitalized the neighborhood. Activities like this Spring Day Camp have helped lift the area out of its long decline. Camp Coordinator David Monato oversaw a round of water balloon toss. Photo by John Gibbins, San Diego Union-Tribune.

When Joan Kroc, wife of McDonald’s magnate and longtime Padres owner Ray Kroc, donated $94 million for a Salvation Army community center, she told designers to dream big.

The result was a 12.4-acre state-of-the-art facility, complete with ice rink, soccer field, rock wall, performing arts center, skatepark and three pools. Less than a block from La Mesa on University Avenue, the Kroc Center has become a neighborhood landmark, brought previously less accessible facilities close to home and created a gathering place for disparate parts of the population.

“It really grabs your heart to see what that lady has done for the community,” said Doris Perry, Rolando Community Council president and Kroc Center member.

The center serves nearly 3,000 people a day and offers an array of recreation options for all ages, including children’s day camps during school holidays and fitness programs for seniors.

“It’s been wonderful, both mentally and physically,” said Patricia Morehead, 84, who takes two exercise classes three times a week. “You meet so many nice people.”

Situated on the border of Rolando and Rolando Park, the Salvation Army Ray and Joan Kroc Corps Community Center was built on the site of an abandoned shopping center that had become a crime-ridden eyesore. Longtime resident and Rolando Park Community Council member Yvonne Rogers described the area as a “ghost town.”

“It was depressing,” she said.

Rolando has enjoyed a “renaissance” since the Kroc Center opened in 2002, said Doug Lister, a Rolando Community Council member. Lister, a Realtor, said that the center “seems to be a selling point” for many home buyers.

The center features cultural arts and education options, including a children’s literacy program and an extensive performing arts curriculum.

For Tiegue Allard, 10, who plays a citizen of Whoville in the upcoming production of Seussical Jr., the theater is her favorite part of the Kroc Center. Tiegue is one of 55 cast members ranging from 8 to 18 years old.

The center’s junior theater company, Kroc Kids, prides itself in including as many as possible, whatever the skill level.

“If you want to be on stage, this is the place for you,” said performing arts manager Brenda Dodge.

The center also served as a disaster relief site during the county wildfires in 2003. The Salvation Army opened the expansive gymnasium to evacuees and prepared meals for emergency workers.

While the center was not an evacuation site in October, the Salvation Army invited teachers from the Chula Vista Elementary School District to teach children arts and crafts while schools were closed.

Although it is run by a Christian organization, the Kroc Center includes a substantial Muslim population and welcomes people of all faiths without proselytizing.

“The key is always being people-based,” said Capt. John Van Cleef, Kroc Center administrator and head pastor of the Kroc Church. “We’re always checking: Are we meeting the needs of the people we’re called to serve?”

Van Cleef expressed a desire to improve accessibility by integrating more second-language programs into the curriculum.

The center itself is not without need, despite its gleaming facilities. Joan Kroc’s donation, which was divided between construction costs and an endowment, covers only a portion of operating costs. The remainder is covered by fundraising, membership fees and local donations.

“It’s easy to forget that she left us enough to help take care of the center, but she also left us enough to be responsible. We have to be really thoughtful” about how to spend the money, Van Cleef said. “The endowment . . . keeps the vision real and accessible. We don’t have to be a for-profit place.”

Salvation Army administrators aim to keep membership fees low. Fees have risen marginally since the center opened. Business director Steve Bireley said rates mirror the area’s cost of living and the increased number of services now offered.

For those in need, the center offers numerous scholarships, which helps maintain a diverse membership, Bireley said.

“You’ll go upstairs and see one of our largest donors on a treadmill next to one of our scholarship recipients. That’s very consistent with what Mrs. Kroc would have wanted,” he said. “Not only mixes of races and creeds, but mixes of economic strata.”

Phyllis Taylor and her granddaughter, Madi, are among the 600-plus families assisted annually. The two started going to the Kroc Center to swim. Madi, 13, ice skated for the first time at the rink and now skates competitively. She and her grandmother also attend Kroc Church.

“It’s like being in a small town where everyone says, Hi,’ ” Phyllis Taylor said.

Kroc, who died in 2003, left the Salvation Army an additional $1.5 billion to construct more than 30 similar Kroc Centers around the country. A San Francisco location is slated to open in July.

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