Chicago's largest indoor water park isn't a tourist attraction. It's a part of a brand new community center on the city's far south side built by the Salvation Army.
The Ray and Joan Kroc Community Center, in West Pullman, is expansive--the building is 160,000 square feet on 33 acres of land. The center, which opens officially on Saturday, features a theater, recording studio, classrooms, four gymnasiums, an indoor track, a fitness center, two pools, a football field, and a baseball field.
Chicago's center will be the program's largest yet, costing about $70 million to build. It was paid for out of a nearly $2 billion fund Joan Kroc left the Salvation Army to build and run community centers in underserved neighborhoods across the country.
"She knew that here in the south side of Chicago, you have people who will never stand on the gold medal stand of the Olympics, or be in a Broadway play because they don't have a center like this to start that dream, to start that impact, to start that gift they have," said Major David Harvey, the center's administrator.
The center will charge a membership fee--$15 for children, $20 for senior citizens, $35 for adults, and $60 for a family of five. The fees can be waived for those in need.
Kroc's gift came in two parts--$55 million to fund construction, and another $55 million to start an endowment to pay for the center's operational costs in the decades to come. But she also required the Salvation Army to raise $50 million to bolster the endowment and ensure local support for the project. So far, the center has raised $37 million, including $1 million each from the Chicago Bulls and the Chicago White Sox.
"We still need citizens here in Chicago to step up and help up finish," Harvey said. "We don't want the program disappearing, ever."
Ald. Carrie Austin (34th) says the center is one of the largest investments ever in West Pullman.
"Nothing ever gets to this end of the city. Because by that time, the money is gone, the program is over. That made us in need and neglect for years and years and years," she said.
And that left students with few safe places to go after school.
Dr. Mable Alfred is the principal of Higgins Community Academy, bordering the Kroc Center. She’s been working with the Salvation Army to develop and run after-school tutoring and music programs.
"We're that safe haven for them during the day, but they need a safe haven once they leave school as well, and the Salvation Army can provide that safe haven for them," she said.
When she started working with the Salvation Army, Alfred's school was on academic probation for poor test scores. Now, nearly four years later, the tutoring is paying off. According to Alfred, over 80 percent of her students meet state standards, up from less than 30 percent four years ago.
Those after-school programs will move to the new center when it formally opens next week. But some early campers are already enjoying the facility.
"Swimming is the best part of the Kroc Center," said Kolin Turner, 8. "Because we get to run around, we get to talk to each other, and most of the things we get to do is play with each other."
Alfred says perks like the water park will draw in kids who may not be interested in summer reading programs.
"This is huge. You're offering them a waterslide," she said. "And then you can get them and reel them in to teaching them math skills and teaching them reading skills."
Harvey hopes the center will have a lasting impact on the city's south side.
"This center is a place we want them to come running to, and have a good time, and learn how to get along together," he said. "This is going to make a place of peace in the community."