The first thing that strikes you as you walk up to the front entrance of the Philadelphia Kroc Center is a BMW parked next to an old jalopy. That sight is indicative of the broad economic cross–section served at this facility, now in its fifth year.
Situated on 12.4 acres of a former impound lot northwest of downtown Philly, the center is surrounded by abandoned factories. Beyond those dilapidated buildings are neighborhoods plagued by crime and urban blight.
Surprisingly, these deserted plants turned out to be a huge plus for the Army’s investment here, according to Major Dennis Gensler, a Philadelphia Kroc administrator.
“Those old, empty buildings act as a buffer of sorts for the neighborhoods just beyond, and the result is that people feel they can come here in safety,” Major Gensler says.
He’d like to see Scripture verses posted all over the facility, so that people can see the predominant Christian influence.
“I’ve heard it said that the Kroc Center is today’s version of the open–air meeting—only brought indoors. In its day, the Army’s open–air meetings drew thousands. Today, thousands are coming into our centers, and we have a unique and sacred opportunity to evangelize in this state–of–the–art way,” the major says.
“The Kroc Center has already made a huge difference in the lives of individuals in the community. The area has been transformed from a junkyard into a family place, a fun place and a place where people from all walks of life can feel safe among friends,” he says.
“Let me give you an example of how diverse our members are,” Major Lynn Gensler adds. “We were invited to a prestigious dinner in honor of a man who was to be presented with an award from the city of Philadelphia for his philanthropy. The wife of the keynote speaker was telling me how she loved coming to swim at our center.”
Major Lynn continues, “I told her, ‘Well, tell all your friends about the Kroc.’ ‘Oh, I do,’ she said, ‘We all enjoy the hot tub!’”
That example shows how some of Philadelphia’s most elite and influential people are coming alongside Kroc members who receive scholarships. “They are using the same facility; working out on the same equipment; using the same locker room,” Major Lynn says. “It’s a remarkable thing to see!”
Captains Dennis and Sharon Young are the Kroc Corps Officers. The Youngs have an uncanny ability to attract people to the corps, greatly expanding Kroc membership to the max.
“The whole premise [of the Kroc Center] is the holistic approach to body, mind and spirit,” Captain Dennis says. “The Kroc is part fitness center and part spiritual center. In order to have a holistic experience, you must make your walk with God a fit relationship. Otherwise, your physical fitness won’t matter.”
The goal is to provide a good balance for every member, helping everyone to become both spiritually and physically fit.
“It’s one thing to look good [physically], but you also need to feel good about yourself [spiritually],” Captain Dennis says.
Calling the daily visitors “an endless flow of people,” Captain Dennis explains, “There is a tremendous opportunity to evangelize here.”
In fact, he estimates, in addition to the soldiery who came over to the Kroc Corps from the old Germantown Corps (when it closed five years ago), some 45 percent of the new soldiers came to the Army as a direct result of their membership.
Ian Dugan works as an education staff assistant computer literacy teacher in the Kroc computer labs. “Working here means so much to me because I can use the gift that God has given me to teach. I also love to share the love of God with others here in this Christian environment,” Ian says.
Another Kroc staff member, Coach Jim Ellis, oversees the impressive swimming pools that are a favorite of young and old alike. Coach Ellis is a nationally–renowned swimming and aquatics coach.
“It is fantastic for The Salvation Army to have a facility like this because it puts a new face on the Army and opens up to the community a myriad of things the Army does to reach out in an at–risk community,” Coach Jim says.
“We save lives by teaching [people] to swim and by wanting to get involved in wellness—physically, mentally, and spiritually,” he adds, calling the Philadelphia Kroc “a one–stop shopping” experience for total fitness.
Rebecca Davis is a soldier in the Kroc Corps. Her excitement over the religious aspect of the center can hardly be contained. She is a member of the Golden Gems, a seniors group, and serves as an usher on Sunday mornings in the worship service.
“We are a family here. Coming here means the world to me because our officers are friendly and loving; everyone is. These are loving and caring people, and I feel safe.”
One of the newest soldiers of the corps, Carolyn Carson, agrees, calling the Philadelphia Kroc “a beacon of light.” Which is what Joan Kroc said she wanted every Kroc Center to be.
By Major Frank Duracher