SAN DIEGO — SAN DIEGO - In this working-class neighborhood near San Diego's eastern border, the Ray and Joan Kroc Corps Community Center is the face of the Salvation Army - one that seems a long way from the image of storefront missions and volunteers ringing bells to help the downtrodden.
The entranceway, labeled "Doorway to Opportunity," is propped wide open on a recent evening - the better to accommodate a steady flow of tots and parents to the ice rink and teen-agers to the basketball court. Women in swim caps and men in goggles perform twilight laps at the outdoor pool, their arms breaking the surface in sync.
The skateboard park and 30-foot rock-climbing wall are open, as is the library. At the performing arts building, which has a 600-seat theater, a class for young actors begins, just as an art class in the education building is ending.
It's a scene the late Joan B. Kroc, philanthropist and widow of the McDonald's magnate, wanted to duplicate. With the gift of about $1.5 billion to the Salvation Army announced in January, Kroc's will provided the money to build similar centers around the country.
The gift, the largest ever to an individual charity, is likely to heighten the presence of a long-standing social service organization, an evangelical church that is already one of the most successful fund-raising organizations in the United States. It also promises to expand the Salvation Army's image of helping the most down-and-out into one that offers opportunities for working-class Americans.
"This takes it in a whole new direction," says Diane Winston, Knight professor of media and religion at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communications, who has written a book on the Salvation Army's history.
From its start as a London street ministry in 1865, the Army aimed to save the lowest of the low - thieves, alcoholics and gamblers - with military zeal.
"In the early days, they would borrow freely from popular music, from popular culture, to get their message across," Winston says. "I see the community centers as the latest version of that."
Kroc, who died in October at 75, directed that half of her final gift be used to build community centers and that half become an endowment to pay some of the operating costs.
But she did not want her gift to pay for administrative expenses, and she expected the communities the centers would serve to keep them running - at a cost the Army estimates at $60 million to $75 million a year for 25 to 30 centers.
The task is so large, so complicated and so costly that Army officials had serious discussions before accepting the bequest, says Maj. George Hood, the charity's national community relations secretary.
"If she believed in us that much, our decision was, we've got to go for it," Hood says.
Kroc's vision for the San Diego center began seven years ago, when she asked friend and ex-Mayor Maureen O'Connor to take her on a drive around the city that included the Rolando neighborhood, where the center was ultimately built.
"She just said she wanted to do something for the city, and do it in an area where it would impact the most people who would need it," says San Diego Police Sgt. Michael O'Neill, who drove them that day.
As a vehicle for carrying out the vision, the Salvation Army was a known quantity for Kroc. Her husband, Ray Kroc, had been a volunteer bell ringer for the Army, and the couple had donated to and been involved with the charity for years.
The $57 million San Diego facility took three years and the efforts of 350 volunteers to plan. Some Rolando residents were skeptical at first, fearing that hungry and homeless clients would disrupt this modest, diverse community.
"They thought it was going to be food lines and senior citizens playing cards," says Doris Perry, president of the Rolando Community Council. "They couldn't imagine there were going to be places for the kids to play."
The 12-acre campus, which spans two blocks next to a lackluster strip mall, is now so large the staff uses golf carts to get around. A beige tower with green glass is lighted at night to offer the "beacon of hope" to the community that Kroc wanted the center to become.
Eighteen months after its opening, residents speak of the center in glowing terms. Some real estate agents have made a home's proximity to the Kroc Center a selling point.
David Gonzalez, a cashier at the Save A Lot grocery store across the street, says the center has helped to spur redevelopment, including the presence of a new Starbucks at the strip mall. "It's brought a lot of people down here, a lot of nationalities," he says. "This place used to be dead in here."
One day, Connie Tabor has a free moment in the sun-dappled courtyard, with her six children occupied in the center. Her oldest boy, 15, works in the library, while his teen-age sisters take a public-speaking class. The youngest, 6, 8 and 10, study art.
Tabor, 33, who lives nearby, is one of a group of home-schooling parents who see the center as a place for their children to take special classes, get exercise and spend time with friends.
"It takes away a lot of the frustration of home schooling as far as kids socializing with other kids," she says. "The ice skating, my kids used to be able to only see on TV. Now, they're able to participate."
Membership costs $420 a year for a neighborhood family, and some activities are free.
The center still carries out the Salvation Army's more traditional mission, providing emergency food, housing assistance and toys for the poor at Christmas. When wildfires engulfed the region in October, the gym became an emergency shelter for 400 people, while the kitchen turned out 30,000 meals for the firefighters and the displaced. The skateboard ramps are pushed aside from Thanksgiving to Christmas to create a huge warehouse of food and toys for the needy.
And the center has room for church. A Salvationist congregation that began meeting there in July has attracted 75 members, according to the center's administrator, Maj. Cindy Foley - but it represents a tiny fraction of the 760,000 people who have used the facility since it opened.
Winston says she doesn't expect the new centers to change the low-key way the Salvationists attract worshippers - counting on the people they're helping to become curious about the religious services going on nearby:
"I don't think they're going to put a heavy layer of religion over basketball games ... but I think it's a continuation of the kind of evangelism they're best at."
It could be years before the Army picks locations for the new centers and decides what form they'll take. The money won't even reach the Army until Kroc's estate is settled in about seven months, Hood says.
The Salvation Army's Greater Baltimore Command likely will apply for one of the new centers, says spokeswoman Lafeea Watson. The region now has four social service centers, four Boys and Girls Clubs and a homeless shelter.
Kroc visited the San Diego center two weeks before she died for the installation of a $2.5 million Henry Moore sculpture she donated. She told Foley she wanted to get back one more time to watch children twirl on the ice. She never made it.
"She said that what the Kroc center has become in its first few years was beyond her wildest dreams," Foley says. "She would be a hard person to dream bigger than."