Volunteers sweat for a good cause at Kroc Center

After receiving a generous donation from the Ray and Joan Kroc Foundation, administrators at The Salvation Army knew that their next task would be to raise another $30 million before the Kroc Center would become a reality on Wissahickon Avenue in East Falls. 

So, before the brand new community center opened last November, Philadelphia’s branch of The Salvation Army campaigned to raise the required funds.

Those acquired funds now provide the community with an indoor swimming pool and water park, theater, health club, gymnasium, outdoor track and organic garden. But until now, one thing has been missing: a playground.

Then Reverend Bonnie Camarda, Director of Partnerships at The Salvation Army, called on UnitedHealthcare and asked them to “do something for the underprivileged community.”

Bernadette Mulligan, community relations manager for UnitedHealthcare, saw the playground as a perfect opportunity to encourage children to be healthy and active in the East Falls area, where United provides health insurance to 5,000 people.

They pledged to build the playground.

Vice President of Sales and Marketing Darrin Johnson explains, “We pick projects that are aligned with our mission, which is helping people live healthier lives.”

But to UnitedHealthcare, lending a hand meant more than writing a check. They wanted to build the playground with their own bare hands.


Combating childhood obesity 

So, last week, nearly 100 volunteers left their offices to assemble three structures that will officially open to the public on Saturday, following a ribbon cutting ceremony.

Before building began, UnitedHealthcare contacted Playworld Systems to lead their project. Two workers from the playground building company brought tools and know-how while hospital and office workers helped bring the playground to life.

Johnson said the three assembled structures will help to combat childhood obesity.

On Wednesday, under the hot sun, the group pulled weeds, cleaned windows, and power-washed walls. The brand new center now looks as new as it did when it first opened.

On Thursday, they built the playground. Some volunteers unpacked and built the rock climbing wall, while others stripped the bubble wrap off of the monkey bars. Together, they lifted heavy plastic pieces, tightened bolts and braved the scorching heat. 

“Sweating for a good cause!” volunteer Christine Smith noted.

Kneeling next to the organic garden, volunteers followed instruction manuals and joked around while frequently consulting with the experienced Playworld foremen.

“Wow, are they serious? This is a puzzle!” said Marguerite Smolen, as she tried to make sense of the instructions for building a “treasure tumble.”

Veree Carter said in awe, “It’s actually standing,” as she loosened her grip on a pole supporting a slide.

Leap Thach wondered aloud, “I can’t imagine what the kids are going to feel when they see this.”

Many of the UnitedHealthcare volunteers visit the Kroc Center to teach classes on health issues. They were already imagining the sense of pride they would experience someday when they would see children playing on the playground they built.


A plus for the community 

The Kroc Center is still expanding. The center just hired a recreation director who is currently organizing sports leagues for swimming, lacrosse, soccer, volleyball, and basketball.

Program Director, Envoy Anita Hilton, says the new playground is open to all, not just for Kroc Center members. “It’s great for the community.”

They are also waiting for a license to open an “early childhood education center,” which Hilton believes is, “another piece of the community coming together.”

Dottie Wells, the business director at the Kroc Center, sees these projects as part of a community objective: “make fitness part of a family event and make sure your kids are being supervised.”

Swim coach Jim Ellis is now gearing up for the Kroc’s first competitive summer swim program, which will begin June 27 and run for seven weeks. Ellis, who gained international attention with a long career of coaching inner city children to swim at top competitive levels, says the program will be a thorough experience for budding swimmers.

“This will be the first sumer, we’re going to try to establish ourseves,” he said. “We think it will be a great program.”

The program will cover stroke and training techniques, it will hold seminars on nutrition, and race and relaxation strategies, and it will feature guest lessons from several college swim coaches who want to work with the program. Swimmers can still sign on for one week at a time, or for the full seven weeks.

In addition, the Kroc Center will participate in the Summer Splash program, where children come to the pool to swim and play.

UnitedHealthcare representatives plan to be poolside, here and around the city, teaching children about nutrition and providing dental screenings.

The playground’s formal ribbon cutting ceremony will take place at 11:30 a.m. on Saturday, June 4.  

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