It's noon on a Thursday at Deerfield Hills Community Center's spray ground, and perhaps 60 children run through the water while parents line the outside edges. Other large groups sit at picnic tables or settle into shady spots on the grass. Two young boys with buzzed haircuts stare at each other, smiling in their swim trunks, then lower goggles over their eyes and romp to the water. Toddlers, their diapers bulging from their bathing suits, plod around, losing hats and shoes along the way.
The scene is even livelier in the small parking lot, where drivers nearly hit curbs trying to get around one another. The actual spaces have long been full, and some people have left their vehicles illegally parked in the lot, while others have filled the street parking. One brave little girl, curly hair bouncing, runs squealing into the parking lot, making her terror-stricken mother chase after her.
Chaos reigns supreme.
And there's good reason for that: There simply isn't enough room for all the people who want to be here. That's so obvious that even the notoriously austere city government is helping fund an expansion and remodel of this southeast center — the city's smallest by far — that will likely cost around $600,000.
It's quite a turnaround from the dark days of the recession in 2010, when City Council considered closing not only Deerfield, but all four of the city's community centers.
The centers — which serve low-income neighborhoods and provide affordable day care, preschool and programming for seniors — dodged that bullet and, as Deerfield demonstrates, have gone on to become more vibrant than ever.
Jody Derington, Deerfield's program coordinator, has a glowing tan.
The center's only full-time employee, she's been outside all summer, directing part-time employees and volunteers running summer camps. There are 71 kids in the elementary camp and 23 kids in the teen camp, plus daily visitors galore.
Despite the crowds, summer is actually the best time at Deerfield, which sits on more than 12.5 acres in southeast Colorado Springs and, in addition to the spray ground, has a beach volleyball court, a playground, two basketball courts, a community garden and picnic tables. Unless it rains, the kids are outdoors — instead of scrunched into Deerfield's two main rooms.
"It's the oldest and the first community center that the city has had; it's less than 5,000 square feet," Derington says. "However, we've never lacked in participation, so our numbers are the same or greater than our sister community centers."
The center was built in the early 1970s by a developer as a neighborhood gathering place, but was bought shortly afterward to serve as a community center. Last year, it saw 72,000 turnstile visitors and served 16,179 snacks and meals. About 60 kids were in the center's after-school program, which costs just $30 to $60 per month depending on a family's income.
The space problem limits how many kids can take advantage of popular offerings; for example, there's a wait list for that after-school program. It makes it impossible to offer much-asked-for classes for other groups, such as seniors. It restricts the amount of free food the center can offer, because there's very little space to store it.
It also makes daily operations a huge hassle. For instance, the center offers preschool in the morning, but the same room must be used for other programs in the afternoon. So every morning, items from desks to children's artwork must be dragged out of a storage closet and set up, all to be packed up again later in the day. The process takes about an hour each time.
Deerfield's city general fund allocation this year is $333,177. But since it provides so many free and low-cost services, it also relies on 42 community partners, including Care and Share Food Bank for Southern Colorado, which provides meals and snacks; Beth-El School of Nursing, which provides health education and assessment; UCCSTeach, which provides science, technology, engineering and math education; and many others.
The expansion of Deerfield is still in its early stages, but could be complete by mid-2016.
An initial public meeting was held last week. City Recreation and Administration manager Kim King says her department is listing the project as a top priority in its capital improvements program, and hopes to get $200,000. Steve Posey, senior redevelopment specialist for the city, says there's already $400,000 set aside in Community Development Block Grant funds for the project, and his housing and community initiatives division also paid about $82,000 for the architectural design. The budget won't buy all the improvements requested for the center — a parking lot expansion and small indoor gym, for instance, aren't included — but it will fund many, including ADA-compliant bathrooms and entrances.
A design advisory group of neighbors and stakeholders will help decide what else the expansion covers, but Derington says she's hoping the remodel and approximately 2,200 new square feet will allow for a permanent preschool classroom, a teen space, a space for after-school care and meetings, a community area, room for a health clinic, and a redesigned kitchen.
"We want it to feel like a home away from home," she says.