t’s the Tuesday after Labor Day. The sprayground had just closed for the season a few days earlier, but there are still plenty of things to do at Deerfield Hills Community Center. In the parking lot, the sun is perched high over a little boy as he races on his bike toward the ramp that leads inside. A cool autumn breeze blows as a small-framed woman, dwarfed by 6-foot corn stalks, harvests her massive zucchini from the center’s community garden. The faint smile on her lips speaks to her pride.
Inside, folks are crowding the community dining area to nab items from rows of tables displaying a weekly bounty of free fresh foods — some in anticipation of using them at that evening’s plant-based cooking class.
Tucked away in a southeast corner of the city, in the heart of the Deerfield Hills neighborhood, the center is the city’s oldest and smallest. And it’s always abuzz with activity. This is where we’ll start, as we explore the city’s community centers and the people they engage, over the next few columns.
Deerfield was acquired by the city in the ‘70s and it’s weathered its fair share of storms since, but has remained open. It was expanded in 2016, even though the city threatened to close it, and the city’s three other community centers, in 2010.
Community centers aren’t just buildings, they strengthen neighborhoods. They provide a place for personal development, voice and neighborhood power. The economic and social impact of their presence can’t fully be calculated as they provide services, relationships and inspiration that many individuals and families would never have access to otherwise. Especially because community centers, historically, are located in neighborhoods where they’re most needed: ones with lower average household incomes.
The center fosters a sense of community in an area that lacks options for public meeting spaces. In 2017, Deerfield was visited just shy of 80,000 times — consider that the population of the Southeast is around 90,000. But surprisingly, people also come from as far as Widefield, Falcon and Ellicott.
Nanette Nordenholt, a seven-year neighborhood resident and the center’s food coordinator, first learned about the center through its summer youth programs. The programs were inclusive to a special needs child she was a caretaker for.
“I think the beauty of community centers is that those who are community-minded gravitate to them and develop their community,” she says.
Nordenholt is originally from New York but has lived in the Springs for the last 20 years. Still, she says, she found it difficult to connect with people, particularly on her block. But now, since becoming involved at the center, she’s formed friendships — people she bumps into at the grocery store.
Rewa Lopez, another resident, says over the 18 years she’s lived in the community she has made genuine connections with her neighbors that have formed into caring alliances, where everyone checks to make sure everyone else is OK.
Jody Derington, the center’s parks operations administrator shares a similar sentiment. “I’m in love with the community,” she says. “We have become a family over the years.”
The Deerfield Hills neighborhood is racially and socioeconomically diverse, Derington says. Lopez notes that’s one of the common misconceptions about Deerfield: that everyone who lives there is “poor, broke and on welfare and doesn’t care about the neighborhood.” She attributes this largely to how crime is reported about the Southeast.
“Crime happens everywhere in the city,” she says. Deerfield, she says, does have an identity, but it’s not crime or poverty.
As a foster parent, Lopez says she appreciates the center’s youth programs and their variety of recreational experiences. That’s a strong draw for many residents. Almost 60,000 youths were served through 68 different programs in 2017. Deerfield’s model allows for the center to be a major community hub, but its reach extends out into its surrounding parks and schools.
With the support of 2017 and 2018 grants from the Penrose-St. Francis Health Foundation and Transforming Safety Colorado, Derington has been able to introduce fresh programs that she’s thrilled about. They include a daily after-school program at Panorama Middle School that offers homework assistance, skill-building, urban and cultural art instruction, health and wellness lessons and a variety of field trips. Also new: a summer pop-up play, drop-in park activity.
Derington says that, like all community centers, Deerfield always needs more funding, but she feels blessed to work with such amazing people who are innovative, passionate and willing to listen to the community’s needs and figure out how to develop programs around those.