On a recent day, maintenance workers fix lights in the Social Rec Room, volunteers blend smoothies in the kitchen, people meet in the Cultural Arts room, and kids build a garden outside. The Nancy P. Anschutz Community Center in Northeast Park Hill is abuzz with anticipation of its projected opening in September.
The Anschutz Center represents the community rising from its ashes. The area has been stricken with gang violence, and in 2008, the Holly Shopping Center at 35th Avenue and Holly Street burned to the ground when gang members set it on fire.
For months the site remained rubble, but ex-gang member and founder of The Prodigal Son Initiative, Terrance Roberts, says he never considered leaving. “I shouldn’t have to be pushed out of my own community because of violence,” he says. “People love this place. This is all we’ve known our whole lives.”
The community decided they could no longer look at the burnt space. “We shouldn’t have to look outside our windows and see that,” says Gerie Grimes, executive director of the nonprofit Hope Center for the disabled, the only surviving building of the original Holly Square. “It happened, and we can move forward from that.”
In 2009, Roberts, Grimes, community organizations and volunteers collaborated to start rebuilding Holly Square. They say their aim was to create a safe place for the neighborhood’s 3,000 kids to go after school instead of joining gangs. Their efforts and a $5 million donation from the Anschutz Foundation conceived the community center—and it’s beyond what they hoped. “There’s been a lot of pain around what happened,” Roberts says. “This place [Anschutz Center] is significant because it’s helping to heal not only individual trauma but the whole community.”
The new community center has pristine modern architecture. Inside is bright and sunny. The building’s main use will be the Boys and Girls Club, the nationwide nonprofit that helps enhance the lives of youth. “We want to teach our kids how to be successful adults,” says branch director Jason Torrez.
The community center has six main rooms to serve the Boys and Girls Club’s mission. There is a Social Recreation Room that will have pool tables, foosball and carpet bowling. An Education Room will provide homework help and accelerated reading programs. “Don’t let the hat and tattoos fool you, man; we have a stellar education program here,” Roberts says, referring to his flat bill hat and sleeve tattoos. There will also be a Cultural Arts Room that will teach photography and fine arts (including a kiln for ceramics). Science and computer knowledge programs will be in a Technology Lab. The kitchen, which is the only commercial-grade kitchen in any Boys and Girls Club, will serve meals every day and host cooking classes and nutrition programs. The gym offers a place to promote active lives and the planners expect talented neighborhood basketball players will flock there.
Besides the Boys and Girls Club, the community center will also house Mi Casa and The Prodigal Son Initiative. Mi Casa is a nonprofit that primarily serves the Latino population and strives for the economic success of Latino families but is open to anyone. The Prodigal Son Initiative works to strengthen communities by helping kids succeed and become leaders. They also do activities like rafting, rock climbing and basketball tournaments. “We are the voice of the youth,” T’ngela Wilhite says. She has been in the program for seven years and loves it. Her picture hangs on one of the 12 columns remaining from the destroyed shopping center. “We invite other kids and have a good time together for the safety of our community and for their families so they have a safe place to come to,” she says.
“And we always clean up,” she adds.
“Well, I don’t be here for that stuff,” says DeShawn Burks, and they laugh.
“DeShawn is somehow never around for that,” Roberts says, and laughs.
Burks says The Prodigal Son Initiative changed his life. He first moved to Park Hill when he was 11 years old and his friends encouraged him to join a gang. “Then I met Terrance,” he says.“And people said I should join Prodigal Son because it helps you be a leader.” Burks now encourages his friends to join The Prodigal Son. Many of them have left gangs to join the organization.
The Boys and Girls Club, The Prodigal Son Initiative and Mi Casa will work together to help youth and serve the community. The center will also coordinate events with neighboring organizations including the Hiawatha Davis Rec Center, Pauline Robinson Library, and Hope Center, a nonprofit that helps developmentally disabled individuals thrive through quality education.
The community-wide effort has helped Northeast Park Hill rise from its ashes. Roberts says community spirits have lifted, and it’s once again a place people can be proud of.
“This is my community,” Roberts says. “I’m going to be here every day. This is all I know, all I’ve got. We want our community to get the same respect every other community gets. We’re doing what it takes to get that.”
Registration for the Boys and Girls Club begins August 19, and programming begins in September. A grand opening celebration is October 1, 2013.