A refuge and sanctuary, the Cripple Creek Park and Recreation building is a place to come to, especially for the city’s children. “We want to show them that they fit in here, that they belong and are valued,” said Connie Dodrill, executive director of the department.
Dodrill, with Jamie and Gene Johnson, initiated the Kids Helping Kids Project to give children a purpose and a goal while hanging out at the rec center.
The theme of the project is reflected in the Johnsons’ soup kitchen.
“Kids meet me at the door, help me carry stuff in from the car,” Jamie Johnson said, referring to at least 10 students who set up and help serve the lunch on Tuesdays in the summer and Fridays during the school year.
Distinguished by the Johnsons’ culinary expertise, salads, homemade soups and fresh breads, the kitchen is a response, in part, to the statistic that 40 percent of students in the RE-1 School District receive free lunch.
As a result, the couple found a serendipitous connection with the need and a spiritual direction that sprang from their church.
“They talked about loving others in a practical way, of being the hands and feet of Jesus every day,” Johnson said.
Johnson comes from good stock as her mother, Barbara Blommer, has been serving lunch once a week in Woodland Park, now at the city’s community church on Valley View Drive.
The Warrino and Richards families are a vital part of the project. “We just try to help people,” said Meredith Warrino, who, with her children, Richie and Sophie, come every week, along with Chloe Richards, to help set up and serve.
“So many kids qualify for free lunch at school that the project started out as a Friday lunch when school is out.”
From serving the city’s children, the lunch has evolved to a social hour for the community. Most days 80 or more children, as well as adults, enjoy lunch with their friends, new acquaintances or not.
The children, many of who are alone during the summer days, find more than nutritional nourishment at park and rec. There’s a playground outside, roller skating, pool and air hockey, in addition to just hanging out with others.
“This is really a community center,” Johnson said. “Everybody feels comfortable coming in here.”
Throughout the summer days, the children lend their enthusiasm and energy to the building, which doubles as an entertainment venue as well as a fitness center that serves more than 800 people a month.
“It’s kind of a culture we have here, we try to participate in the community, such as being involved in the school so they know we’re supportive,” Dodrill said.