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The Healthiest Thing McDonald's Ever Did for Philadelphia

Recent public pools closings and other budget cuts have hit the North Philadelphia neighborhood of Nicetown especially hard, but a new, comprehensive community center has stepped in to fill the gaps.

The $72 million  Salvation Army Ray and Joan Kroc Corps Community Center opened this past fall on Wissahickon Avenue, among warehouses and Fernhill Park. People from all over the city have been flocking to the 130,000 square-foot Kroc Center -- and for good reason. A diverse array of fitness programs, a state-of-the-art aquatics facility, a gorgeous worship and performing arts center, and extensive after-school educational programming makes it the most comprehensive community center on the East Coast.

"We've only been open for a year, but we're well above our target," says Education Director Alyson Goodner. The center has processed 10,000 memberships, half of whom are on scholarship. More than 8,200 members have used the facility, including more than 3,100 families.

Poverty has increased in Philadelphia, according to the most recent census figures, and the rate is even higher in the six neighborhoods surrounding the Kroc Center. Though members come from all over the city, Goodner says, "we're really focusing on serving the local community."

From San Diego With Love
This North Philadelphia community center is the ninth one of its kind. The Salvation Army opened the first one in San Diego in 2001, funded by a $90 million donation from Joan Kroc, a philanthropist and the widow of McDonald's founder. Two years later, when she passed away, she left $1.5 billion to The Salvation Army to build more centers like it all over the country.

Kroc had envisioned these community centers to be places where families would have access to resources that were otherwise unavailable to them. "When we launched (in November 2010), we did a massive needs survey to determine what the community wanted," Goodner says. Early childhood education, extracurricular academic programs and health education were at the top of the list.

The Kroc Center itself is designed with the community's needs in mind. When you enter the building, the first room you encounter is the Kind Family Center, which provides resources for social services and organizes community outreach programs. The next room you pass is the early childhood education center, which contains a nursery and daycare as well as classrooms and will launch by the spring, seving up to 90 children between the ages of 6 months and 4 years (already there's a waiting list). Just past the lobby is a cafe that offers healthy food options and cooking classes as part of the Center's health education initiative.

The Kroc Center listens to its members--even the youngest ones. Justin Freeman, age 11, felt that the prices at the cafe were too high, given the portions. He proceeded to write a letter of complaint, and the cafe lowered the prices.

Water Water Everywhere
Justin and his mother, Linda, have been members at the Center for almost a year. Justin comes in every day to participate in the after-school program and use the water park. His mother uses the gym regularly, and participates in water aerobics. "I think it's a good thing for the neighborhood," Linda says. "There are so many things for the kids to do, and it's nice to get exercise."

The aquatics center is probably the most well-known part of the Kroc Center. "Outside the University of Pennsylvania's pool, which isn't open to the public, this is the best pool in the city," Goodner says.  

In addition to a water park designed for beginner-level swimmers, there is also a competition-grade pool. Jim Ellis, the award-winning coach portrayed in the documentary Pride, uses it to coach a team of 45 kids ages seven to 15. "There's so much history with Jim, and that has really set the scene for what he can do with this pool," assistant swim coach Alyssa Martinez says.

Though the team is young, they are on track to be ready for the Olympic trials in 2016. "We have several girls ranked at the top of their age group," Martinez says.

Nzingha Wright, age 15, is one of the oldest members of the swim team. "Compared to what I had (in school), this place is very nice, and the people are extremely friendly," she says.

In the midst of public school closings and citywide school budget cuts, the Kroc Center has sought to meet the needs of the community. "We present opportunities for supplemental programming since schools are cutting back on arts, sciences and after-school programs," Goodner says.

Thirty-three students in the Kroc Center's after-school program have already reported more than 40 percent improvement, on average, in mastering grade level math skills.

Neighborhood schools like Wissahickon Charter, which do not have their own aquatics facilities, use the pool once or twice a week. Penn Charter School sends students to the Center to tutor children in the after-school programs. And last year, as part of its work-study program, Mastery Charter School had 16 students intern at the Kroc Center in various departments.

A School Choice Event will be held on Feb. 23, to introduce hundreds of residents in surrounding neighborhoods to its new neighbors, including charter schools and the Shane Victorino Boys and Girls Club.

The Kroc Center continues to develop an even more robust educational program. "We do diagnostics with the kids, and create specialized packets for them so that after they're done with their homework, they can continue to learn here," Goodner says. They are also establishing corporate partnerships to provide resources and enrich the curricula. Wells Fargo, for example, will soon be conducting financial management classes for children, and iCreate to Educate, an educational company, is incorporating its stop-motion animation software into after-school programming.

Next year, Goodner hopes to partner with more schools, so that the Kroc Center continues to develop as a resource for the community. She says, "Our job is constantly to think about facilities and services that are not available, and to fill that gap."

IVANA NG is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. Originally from New York City, she enjoys writing about education, technology and the arts. Send feedback here.  

Photos by JEFF FUSCO
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