Body, Mind, and Spirit
Reaching out from the city’s heart, the Salvation Army Kroc Center touches the whole person.
In a gleaming facility on East Parkway near Central Avenue, bodies sweat in the fitness center or gyrate in the gym to a Zumba beat. Kids gallop over hurdles and groove to dance moves, while their parents lift barbells, swim laps, shoot basketballs, or burn calories on a spin bike.
Welcome to the Salvation Army Kroc Center, which opened in February 2013 and is one of only 27 such facilities in the nation. And as Rick Ellis had to remind himself when he was first hired as program director, its purpose goes far beyond fitness. “This is so much more comprehensive,” says Ellis, who in 1981 started Holiday Inn’s corporate wellness center and has a long career in fitness. But since he also believes in spiritual growth, he saw this job as an opportunity to promote the health of the whole person. “The Kroc Center helps achieve that with its emphasis on four aspects of life — recreation, education, arts, and worship,” says Ellis. “They were all part of Joan Kroc’s vision. So was location. She wanted these centers being built where the entire community could come together.”
Joan Kroc was the widow of McDonald’s magnate Ray Kroc, and upon her death in 2003 she gave the Salvation Army $1.5 billion specifically for the construction of these centers in cities that met her five requirements. In 2005, Memphis passed the rigorous application process to become eligible for funds. When the local Salvation Army raised $25 million for the project, that landed another $60 million from the Kroc estate.
About that same time, the city closed Libertyland amusement park, which opened in 1976 at the Mid-South Fairgrounds. Seeing this as a prime site — located near the Children’s Museum of Memphis, Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium, and Fairview Middle School — the local Salvation Army purchased the land in 2007, and the $1.6 million Kroc Center began to take shape. In this location, says Ellis, “we can touch all elements of Memphis culture and every socioeconomic group. It’s a perfect, wonderful mix.” Within walking distance or a short drive of the center are neighborhoods ranging from Chickasaw Gardens to Orange Mound, Cooper-Young to the Beltline.
Since it opened last year, membership has grown to nearly 9,000. And just as it draws a mix of people, it also offers a variety of programs. On any given day, people are not only getting physical — with aquatics, personal trainers, boot camp, sports leagues, and more — they’re learning and stretching their horizons.
“No matter what teachers we plug into a class, we know they’ll be highly trained.”
Physically, “folks really love our machines and all the group fitness classes — 83 a week in different parts of the building,” says Ellis. “Memphis needs a lot of help. We’re near or at the top nationally in diabetes, hypertension, obesity. We have fit people here but we also have those coming in for the first time. I’m excited that the Kroc Center has become a place where people are comfortable regardless of what kind of help they need.”
That comfort quality extends to the pool in the aquatics area, which is different from those in other cities with Kroc Centers. While the pool has 10-feet-deep lap lanes for veteran swimmers, one section is only a few inches deep. “That’s because a large part of the Memphis population can’t swim or are afraid of the water,” says Ellis. “So we have swim lessons and camps where kids and adults can learn. That can make a big difference in their lives.”
Another unusual feature of the Memphis facility is how its teachers are trained. “We license the vast majority of our classes through a group in Atlanta and our teachers must be certified,” says Ellis. “What’s unique is that every three months the teachers get all new music and all new class [material]. They send participants to test sites for feedback about the changes, and they tweak the class to fit the feedback. The teachers may go so far as to record a band playing just the right music to match the mood. No matter what teachers we plug into a class, we know they’ll be highly trained. I don’t think you can find a more professionally developed fitness class anywhere else.”
Just as Joan Kroc insisted, the center also meets educational and spiritual goals; one avenue is through its partnership with the Memphis Athletic Ministry. On schooldays at least 100 students from nearby Fairview Middle School and Middle College High School congregate in the afternoons for a Bible devotional, recreational time, tutoring or help with homework, and small-group and one-on-one mentoring. Also, on Tuesday evenings, Captain Jonathan Powell, who runs the center’s Salvation Army church, shows up in the wide hallway with a big cooler filled with Gatorade and Bible verse cards. “He’ll hand out the cards,” says Ellis, “and if the kids come back having memorized the verse, they get a free Gatorade. He encourages the kids, saying, ‘You’ve almost got it. Try again.’”
“It was the perfect place for me.”
For those who love the arts, Stage Door Productions helps hone their creative process. Its co-founder and director Lindsay Mitchell has taught and performed with music outreach programs in the U.S. and Europe. But when she heard about the Kroc Center, she knew this is where she belonged. “I’m from Jackson, Tennessee,” she says, “and grew up in the wonderful art programs there. While living in Jackson I would drive to see shows in Memphis and always had a great respect for what was being done here to grow the arts community.
“When the job at the Kroc Center presented itself, I was very grateful and felt it was the perfect place for me.”
Stage Door Productions offers classes to adults and children, including ballet and tap dance, as well as performing arts camps that attracted more than 200 students during the center’s first year. Rehearsals are currently under way for a musical theatre cabaret titled Best of Broadway, with a cast of 30 from ages 5 to 60, and includes several family groupings — parents, children, and siblings. “That show runs May 23rd through June 1st,” says Mitchell, “and this summer we’ll be producing Godspell. Over the past year we have been lucky enough to work with performers in their first show as well as performers who have graced multiple stages in Memphis.” In addition to in-house productions, local groups — including Opera Memphis, New Day Children’s Theatre, Germantown Community Theatre, Ballet on Wheels, and the Navy Band — have also used the 300-seat theater.
“It makes you feel like you’re at a theme park.”
The term “performing arts” takes on a whole new meaning at the the Kroc’s Challenge Center, thanks to the passion and drive of Ty Cobb. The former Ole Miss cheerleader brings a fitting background to this one-of-a-kind space: In 1980 he created the sport of “acro-dunking” — or slamming dunks from trampolines, and his team, the Bud Light Daredevils, performed in 300 U.S. cities and over 20 countries around the world. In the 1990s, while working with at-risk kids, he developed the CoreFire Commandos comic book storyline as a search-and-rescue theme for youth events. These experiences ultimately led him to the Kroc Center. “I believe through all of this, God provided me with an opportunity to learn how to make events fun and exciting,” he says, “and you’ve got to have that with kids.” Cobb must be doing something right. Comments from various students in schools around the city include: “This was the best day I ever had.” “This is the best place ever.” “I never had so much fun in my entire life.” “I think this is the funnest place I’ve ever been.”
The three-story attraction features such physical challenges as a climbing wall, but what really draws the kids are the 11 theme-designed rooms — a science lab, earthquake room, medical lab, jungle room — all with a video game atmosphere and fast-moving, gladiator-inspired competitions. Students participate in groups of six, each with a rescue mission and a mentor to guide them. Each mission’s goal is to encourage team building, problem solving, and decision making, as participants train to be CoreFire Commandos.
“The schedule also has a discussion time,” says Cobb. “Some are Biblical based. Some may involve special interests that students share with us so we can direct them to after-school programs.” Since the Challenge Center also provides corporate team training, those discussions may focus on topics such as race relations or better communications.
If “rescue missions” aren’t lively enough, the Challenge Center on weekend nights transforms into a giant garage band. On one wall, nine garage doors open in sequence to reveal performing artists — usually musicians but sometimes dance teams or drama troupes — who may not otherwise have a venue to perform. Providing a built-in audience are gladiators sparring on the gym floor.
“The Salvation Army has been so fantastic to work with,” says Cobb. “They said, ‘Ty, just tell the architects what you want.’ They’ve spent the money to build this the way it needs to be built. It’s just amazing. And when people walk in, they often say it makes you feel like you’re at a theme park.”
“They all wanted people to get together and get along.”
Stephen Carpenter joined the Kroc staff in 2006 when the Salvation Army was still raising money and trying to get the center up and running. A decade earlier, the graduate of Memphis University School had returned to Memphis from Princeton Theological Seminary to start New Hope Christian Academy for inner-city students near Downtown. “I was privileged to receive a great education in Memphis,” says Carpenter, “and I wanted to offer that to kids whose families didn’t have the same income.
“I was perfectly happy in my ministry,” he continues, but when a friend approached him about the Kroc Center, he agreed to listen. “Some people are good at continuing programs, others jump in and start things. I’m probably more in that category.” So, with his school well-established, he accepted the job as director of operations for the fledgling facility at the fairgrounds.
“I was intrigued by the possibilities,” he recalls. “And I liked Joan Kroc’s vision of drawing people from every demographic level.” With others from the center, Carpenter met with people from the various neighborhoods and community groups. “Regardless of race or economics, people said the same thing. They all wanted people to get together and get along.” He asked them what they’d like to see and “that was fun to hear,” he smiles. “Everything from bowling alleys to skating rinks. And a lot of people mentioned a pool. We’re glad we can offer that as well as swimming lessons.”
He also likes seeing the relationships that are built. “Barriers break down. People are fearful of things they don’t know. But then that changes and they start going out shopping or to eat and get to know each other.”
He’d been familiar with the Salvation Army’s commitment to those in desperate need. From his experience with the school he founded, he knows the domino effect that can land families in dire situations. “You’re a single parent, you have a flat tire, can’t get your kids to school, lose your job, have nobody in your circle to help,” says Carpenter. “But if you can bring people together and build friendships, you don’t have to wind up in a downward spiral that ends in a shelter. You come to know people you can ask for help or lean on in times of trouble. That’s what we try to do at the Kroc Center.”
“Joan Kroc’s vision ministers to the whole person.”
Unlike Carpenter, Captain Jonathan Rich was more than just familiar with the Salvation Army. He and his wife, Barbara Rich, area commanders of the local branch since 2012, come from a long line of Salvation Army officers and were members of the organization’s church. For a while the couple pursued other careers — Jonathan as an accountant with Price Waterhouse, Barbara in education and fundraising. “Then we sensed a leading we believe came from God to serve people full-time through the Salvation Army.” They both became ordained ministers — a requirement for married couples — and served in several cities before following a call to Memphis.
Though the Riches oversee all aspects of the local organization, they were “most excited about Joan Kroc’s vision. It was very much the Salvation Army vision,” he says, “because it ministers to the whole person.” He speaks of founder William Booth, a British Methodist minister who in the 1870s “visited the most destitute part of London and realized that until we met people’s physical needs — food, shelter, safety — they would never be open to any spiritual message,” says Rich. “So I think this whole idea of recreation, education, art, and worship all coming together touches the whole person in a caring way.”
On Sunday mornings at 11 a.m. worshipers gather in the theater for a church service, and throughout the week they’ll meet for activities that include Bible study for various age groups and men's and women’s ministries. “Right now we have about 100 in attendance on Sunday morning,” says Captain Anita Howell, who leads the church with her husband and a youth development officer. “We provide larger outreach programs throughout the year where the entire community can come together and enjoy.” These include an Easter egg hunt on April 9th, “Movie with Mom” on May 10th, and “Backyard Barbecue with Dad” on June 14th.
One section of the Kroc Center’s website describes it as a place “to learn, grow, and explore potential and to experience God’s love in the process.” Ellis gives an example of how he perceives that experience. “We have a Zumba teacher who was teaching about 100 classes. Her back went out one day, and the women in the class not only went to her aid, got her ice packs, and drove her home, they cooked meals, cared for her kids, and cleaned her house.”
Howell says she could tell “tons of stories” about employees who help members overcome life’s fears and obstacles by encouraging them and caring for them “because each is a child of God,” she says. “[We may] have a life conversation with a member while lifting weights, pray with a teen on the basketball court, share a meal at the Kroc Cafe. Showing God’s love is what we’ve been called to do.”
Or as Ellis concludes: “Call us a community center, call us a church. We’re here to serve.”
Marilyn Sadler is a senior editor of Memphis.
For information on the Kroc Center’s membership fees, programs, summer camps, and more, visit krocmemphis.org.