Citing successes, Kroc Center focuses on new programs

Salvation Army Kroc Center Fitness and Recreation Attendant Kenneth Heyward overseeing 10-year-old Jordan Edge of Dorchester as he participates in the Dribble, Dish & Swish basketball skills competition.Salvation Army Kroc Center Fitness and Recreation Attendant Kenneth Heyward overseeing 10-year-old Jordan Edge of Dorchester as he participates in the Dribble, Dish & Swish basketball skills competition.

Eight months after opening its doors, the Salvation Army’s Ray and Joan Kroc Center continues to expand its programming in hopes of drawing in new members.

With a current membership of 2,000 and plans to double that number by next June, the Uphams Corner-based community center’s staff has spent the past months monitoring and expanding some of their most popular programs, including a umber that are available to members and non-members alike.

“Once three rolls around, things get really, really busy around here,” said membership sales and marketing manager Yhinny Matos from inside one of the center’s multi-use rooms that serves as a staging ground for the Kroc’s popular Kids F.E.A.S.T. after-school program.

Kids F.E.A.S.T. offers students leaving school a chance to get home work assistance and tutoring as well as a “daily enrichment” activity ranging from arts and crafts to swimming and sports. The program rounds out the early evening with a full – and free – dinner.

Matos said the program currently accommodates 150 member and non-member students daily, but is expected to open an additional 100 seats to help reduce the 500-student waiting list.

Matos said the F.E.A.S.T. program and a senior-oriented counterpart have been two of the biggest hits for the center and the surrounding community, noting, however, that the Kroc’s “Bridging the Gap” program is one of the center’s best examples of its faith-based mission of community service.

“Bridging the Gap” targets teens who have been referred to the program through the court system and offers job and life skills training classes and diversity education as part of a 12-week process that if completed will ultimately expunge criminal charges brought against the youths.

“We understand that even if it’s a small crime, like vandalism or shoplifting, that it can stay with you your whole life. We don’t want kids’ lives ruined by a single mistake,” Matos said, adding that graduates of the program also receive a free membership following their 18th birthday. “We know the program works because they are some of the most dedicated members we have. We’ve never had a single problem and they keep coming back.”

While Kroc officials said the programs already in place have been successes, they added that the center has been actively pursuing new partnerships with local and citywide organizations ranging from Boston College and the Boston Public Health Commission to the Huntington Theatre Company in an effort to expand options available to the community.

“A lot of groups have come to us, and vice versa, to fill in the holes we can’t always fill ourselves,” said Corps officer Major Ervin McKoy. “We found that when we make an announcement about a new offering, they generate a lot of excitement from the community.”

New programs currently in the works range from a hydroponics farming class and “kids cook” training program to a series of classes to familiarize youths with classical instruments and the finer points of stage acting.

Kroc officials said that although some two thirds of their membership pool is made up of Dorchester and Mattapan residents and the vast majority of its employees live close enough to the center to make their commutes on foot, the center is working hard to make the Kroc a welcoming place for anyone looking to try something new.

“Within the center we have an opportunity, not just for the immediate four or five blocks around us, but for all of the city of Boston,” McKoy said.