By James G. Muhammad
Some may call the Salvation Army’s Ray and Joan Kroc Corps Community Center an oasis in the desert. Others may call it a safe haven. Sudie Davis calls it a game changer for children and families in the area.
“Kids in this area need this,” says Davis, operations director of the 160,000-square foot facility that sits on 33 acres of land in West Pullman, at 1250 West 119th Street. “We’re changing the culture of the neighborhood.”
Davis reveals an engaging smile when he recounts what he feels demonstrates the importance of the center. One day while sitting in his office, he noticed a mother and her three children playing basketball on one of the center’s outdoor basketball courts.
“One of the kids was about her size,” he says, “but she was dropping it. They were grabbing her legs and trying to stop her, but she was killing them. When they finished they went in to have a swim and then went home together. That’s what this is about – family,” he says.
The Kroc Center opened with great fanfare on June 16. The campus holds the largest array of sports, educational and support services under one roof in the city.
The first thing you see when entering the building is a swimming pool with slides and a whirlpool that reminds you of a water park. There’s also a separate Olympic-size pool with diving boards.
There’s a fitness center with weight and cardio exercise equipment, a 240-yard indoor track that circles a huge gymnasium and several out-door tracks.
The gymnasium, built with contributions from the Chicago Bulls, can host five full court basketball games at one time and the multipurpose floor allows for all types of activities, including soccer. When it’s too cold outside for baseball practice, batting and pitching cages can be lowered from the gymnasium ceiling for practice.
On the campus surrounding the building there is a football field with natural turf, a soccer field, a tennis court and a baseball diamond with artificial turf that allows for play in any kind of weather and was built with contributions from the Chicago White Sox. There are meeting rooms, a 500-seat theatre, and a dining area.
The programs offered at the facility seem endless. They range from youth leadership and conflict resolution classes, computer and ballet classes, stepping lessons, golf clinics, and acting classes.
Several soundproof rooms allow students to practice their musical instrument lessons in private and senior citizens have rooms where they can socialize or they can exercise with the grandchildren.
“I look forward to coming to work. Sometimes I can’t wait to get here,” Davis says. “My challenge is to get all the departments to coordinate and work effectively. I’d like to get it running well and watch the kids and families benefit from having this facility here.”
Just Right For The Job
The Salvation Army is a faith-centered international charitable organization and the single largest direct provider of social services in Chicago. It provides disaster relief, shelter, meals, childcare, activities for senior citizens and other services. Many people are only familiar with the Salvation Army through its volunteers with their kettles and bells seeking donations during the Christmas holidays.
The Center is the result of a $1.8 billion donation to the Salvation Army by the late Joan Kroc, widow of the McDonald’s restaurant chain founder Ray Kroc. The contribution is to be used to build and endow “state of the art facilities in under-served communities” so that “all children have equal opportunities to build their natural gifts and talents.” Current plans call for 26 facilities to be built, of which Chicago’s Kroc Center is the largest.
“What was interesting to me is Joan Kroc giving all that money,” Davis says. “When she partnered with the Salvation Army, I feel she made a good choice. They are a solid organization and she wanted to find someone who she thought would follow her mission.”
Selecting Davis to run the facility’s programs was a no-brainer for Major David Harvey, but he called it a “mini-miracle” that Davis’ application crossed his desk on time. Harvey was a lead man in putting all the pieces together to make the facility a reality and is now the facility’s senior administrator.
Over the several years it took to plan and construct the building, Harvey consulted community leaders in the area, including Davis and others at Chicago State University. Davis had just finished helping to open the Emil & Patricia A. Jones Convocation Center and he had been a star athlete with years of coaching experience.
“Since this was going to be a sports and arts center, I started with the sports department when I visited Chicago State,” Harvey recalls. “We rely on volunteers and advisors for everything we do. (Davis) gave good input and he became our liaison to Chicago State.”
But when it came time to choose someone to run the center, Harvey noticed that Davis had not applied. He asked if Davis was interested, and having just left Chicago State, Davis applied and was chosen.
“We really wanted someone from Chicago,” Harvey says. “There may be some things I may have to teach him about the (Salvation) Army, but I don’t have to teach him about Chicago. He has a unique connection with Chicago sports and arts communities.”
Born and raised in Chicago, Davis’ athletic accomplishments are extensive. He was an outstanding athlete at Westinghouse Area Vocational High School and attended Jackson State College in Mississippi on an athletic scholarship where he met Walter Payton and excelled in track. After injuring his leg, Davis transferred to Chicago State where he recuperated and went on to excel on the track team.
He was an NCAA All-American in 1974 and became the school’s track coach during his senior year in school.
He also excelled as a player on the tennis team and designed the school’s Baby Swim curriculum. As a coach, Davis trained many All-American and Olympic athletes. During summer basketball leagues, he helped to train basketball stars like Michael Jordan, Tim Hardaway and Craig Hodges.
He is married to Dr. Marva Felder-Davis, the first Black Homecoming Queen at Virginia Tech.
The Right Approach
Davis feels that the Salvation Army’s approach to community engagement and family cohesiveness is solid: education, recreation and church.
His plan is to collaborate and partner with other community groups and leaders to reproduce what exists at the Kroc Center. And he has attracted an experienced team to help him reach his goals, including Dr. Kimberly McNeal, Bill McClellan and Denise Stroud, all former Chicago Public Schools officials.
“Staffing and programming is missing at many of our institutions,” Davis says. “We’ve got qualified people in our communities, but they may not be able to get into the facilities. We have unused schools, churches with gymnasiums, but everybody is operating on their own. We need to get everybody focused and working together on one mission.”
Davis and Harvey say the center has created a sense of ownership by the neighborhood. Teenage boys come in pulling up their pants. No one trespasses at night on the fields and basketball courts. Even those who are disciplined for violating the rules come back begging to get in, Davis says.
Members of the community, including children, helped to build the new KaBOOM! playground on the campus that went up in one day. The playground’s design is based on drawings submitted by neighborhood children who participated in a Design Day event. White Sox players and organizers from the KaBOOM! organization were on hand for the dedication.
Sandra Young heard about the center from her sister-in-law and came to check the facility out.
“They said it was a safe ground and a good place for young people,” she said. “I got here at 4:30 on a Sunday and they closed at 5 o’clock.
“I took the information home and came back the next day and got a family membership. It means that most days I know where my son is. It’s a clean environment and secure. It takes the pressure off of me,” she said.
Kahd Bradley, who will be a student at Eastern Illinois University this fall, said the center “helps to save lives and gives us a chance to get along. Everybody in the neighborhood comes here. It’s like my second home.”
Delores Henry, 70, said the young people are more polite when they’re at the center, and “even open the doors for us.”
Sitting with several other seniors, she said, “I love it because they have geared so much around the seniors. This room is just for us. There’s a lunch two days a week just for seniors, and it’s fine dining,” she laughs. “That means we’re very important. I have been spending almost too much time here!”
Becoming a member at the Kroc Center is much more than signing up for a health club. Some of benefits include:
• Access to Waterpark & Aquatics Center
• Access to Multi-Activity Gym
• Access to Cardio Fitness & Weight Center
• Access to Indoor & Outdoor Sports Activities
• Access to the Computer Lab
• Fitness Equipment Orientation
• Open Gym
The Ray and Joan Kroc Corps Community Center
1250 W. 119th Street
Chicago, IL 60643
Majors David and Darlene Harvey, Co-Administrators
Weekly Hours of Operation
Monday – Friday: 5:30 a.m. – 10 p.m.
Saturday: 7 a.m. – 8 p.m.
Sunday: 9 a.m. – 5 p.m.
Kroc Center Tours
Monday – Friday
1-5 p.m. at the top of every hour
Adult Membership is $35 per month; Family Membership (up to 5 members within household) is $60 per month; Senior Citizens (ages 62+) is $20 per month; Children (under age 18) is $15 per month. For information on the many benefits of membership visit the Kroc Center website at kroccenterchicago.org.