Ever since the Salvation Army Ray and Joan Kroc Center opened its doors in Ashland almost a decade ago, it has served as a hub for community activities and social services.

Everything from its preschool and after school classes to free meals and food pantry to batting cages and indoor soccer offer a beacon of hope and service to the ministry’s surrounding community.

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“The holistic mission of the Salvation Army is really the mission of the Kroc Center, which is to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ, to meet human needs in his name without discrimination,” Major Brett DeMichael said. “And so how we’re able to uniquely do that at the Kroc Center in Ashland is really our goal. That’s our mission. How do we meet needs holistically in our community through the blessing of all that we have to offer?”

One of 26 Kroc Center’s in the nation, Ashland’s facility brings Joan Kroc’s dream to life.

After opening the first Kroc center in San Diego in 2002 to honor her late husband, Ray Kroc, head of the McDonald’s empire, Joan Kroc decided to donate an addition $1.8 billion to provide Kroc Centers across the country to aid specific needs. Built in 2009, Ashland’s was the fourth to open in the nation, the smallest of the 26.

Former local Salvation Armey officers John and Erin Brand and Majors Larry and JoAnn Shade were instrumental in bringing the facility to Ashland. The Brands put in a bid for a portion of the grant money and when Ashland’s application was accepted in 2005, the Shades, who had just arrived, brought the project to fruition.

It was a community effort. A portion of the funds were given by Joan Kroc, but the community raised the remaining $2 million to fund the approximately 43,000-square-foot building. Groundwork started in 2007 with the building opening in 2009, giving a wider range of opportunities since leaving its cramped and antiquated longtime location on Third Street.

When the Shades retired in 2012, Majors Brett and Jessica DeMichael picked up where they left off, continuing to grow programming.

While most Kroc Centers are known for large-scale recreational centers, Ashland’s facility is unique in its large social services presence.

“No Kroc Center is exactly alike; they’re all kind of different,” Allen Fawley, Kroc Center business and development manager, said. “We are the smallest one…but we have a large social service presence. Most Kroc Centers don’t have that. So we’re kind of unique in that fashion in that we do have a lot of social service work. We do a lot of work within the Ashland community.”

Funded largely by community donations, the center extends humanitarian aid such as housing assistance and heating utilities. The organization serves close to 500 families a month through its food pantry and about 100 people come every day for free meals.

In the summer it offers free meals in its kids lunch program.

“A lot of what we do is backed by the community,” Fawley said. “So we try to figure out what the need is, what need we can fill and try to fill it.”

The center is also unique in its partnership with the Cleveland Food Bank, becoming its test sight for new ideas such as installing a freezer for the center’s food pantry.

Outside of social services, the center is a bustle of weekly activity.

The facility’s multi-purpose field house offers numerous activities throughout the week including open gym hours, batting cages, roller-skating and an indoor soccer youth league.

The center sees a wide range of age groups throughout the day.

A typical day might start with parents dropping off their kindergarteners to the KnoHoCo Head Start program. In late morning, community members may come in for free meals and stick around for activities like bingo or just to chat. Around the same time activities for retired individuals take place like the knitting and crocheting group and bocce ball tournaments. The center is generally quiet after lunch until it fills with children for the after school programs and then adults coming in for evening field house activities.

“So we kind of run the gamut,” Fawley said. “If you sit in for the whole day you would see just a whole wide range of everybody in Ashland…use the facility, which is what is was intended to do.”

In addition to KnoHoCo, the center plays host to the Able GED program three days a week, and offers space to outside groups to use for a short period of time.

The Kroc center is also known for its music program, including the Kroc Center Big Band, which regularly plays around the area.

In the summer, the ever-popular spray park is in use. Originally a last-minute addition to the design, it has become a staple of the Kroc Center.

“We see people all the way from Cleveland come and use it,” Fawley said. “It’s pretty cool. We get a lot of summer day camps using it.”

In the summer, the center is open for youth day camps, along with its free lunch program, serving about 150 kids daily.

The center works to keep its programs affordable and has several partnerships, such as one with the Family and Children First Council, which helps cover the cost of day camp for several families.

“Ashland is so blessed to have the Kroc Center in our midst, providing opportunities in recreation, fitness and the arts that cuts across all age and socioeconomic boundaries,” Jim Cutright, executive director of the Ashland County Community Foundation, said  “As some of us envision a more robust community, it has the potential to be a unique drawing card.”

The heart of the center’s ministry is the passion its workers give on a daily basis. The center has close to 40 part-time and full-time staff, and a number of volunteers who do their best to serve visitors and make everyone feel welcome.

As the Kroc Center looks to the future, its goal is to expand services to meet all age groups and demographics, as well as raise awareness of its presence.

“We do have plans and opportunities for aggressive program and capital expansion in the future,” DeMichael said. “We don’t know exactly what that will like yet, but we are in the process of moving forward with that. And we’re really excited about just being able to continue to expand our growth and meet more need in the community.”

Kristi Schweitzer can be reached at 419-281-0581, ext. 237, or at kschweitzer@times-gazette.com. Follow her on Twitter @krschweitzer.

Info Box:

Kroc Center

Inspiration/ Philanthropist Joan Kroc decided to donate $1.8 billion to the Salvation Army to construct 26 Kroc Centers across the country to meet specific community needs. Ashland was the smallest city selected, in the initial round. The local facility opened in 2009.

How it has evolved? Offering a range of programs and social services the local Kroc Center continues to grow its community outreach across socioeconomic lines with plans to offer activities for all age groups and demographics. Its indoor soccer fieldhouse and spray park are among its most popular recreational features.