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"Hey Mr. Jim!"

Touch it. Experience it. Own it.

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"If I wasn't here I’d probably just be at homebeing bored,” explained Virgil Smith.“We learn to make good decisionshere. I choose this over gangs.”
 

The Central High School junior is just one of an increasing number of older kids who participate in the Salvation Army’s North Corps Community Center After School Program at the nonprofit’s facility at 24th and Pratt streets.
 

An instructional basketball program launched by Program Director Jim Sells is just one of the draws that has accounted for a 30 percent increase in attendance since the Fort Dodge, Iowa native became the center’s leader in May. The after school program serves students pre-Kthrough high school.
 

“Jim has an incredible rapport with the kids,” said Major Barbara Shiels, the Salvation Army’s divisional director of older adult ministries. “All the kids sign in at the door, but their arrival isn’t really complete until they check in with Jim and give him a high five or a hug. He’s making a huge difference in the lives of our kids and has initiated some truly innovative community efforts.”
 

A recent visit to the free after school program found the building echoing with laughter in a hard scrabble neighborhood where opportunities for brevity are often all too rare.
 

“Right now I’m just trying to get them all tired out so we can feed them,” said Sells as we began a tour above the din of cheers and bouncing basketballs. “This is the last food that many of these kids will have today, so it’s important that dinner is a quieter time.”
 

The arts and crafts room was an explosion of vibrant creativity as crayons met paper before a chorus of “Aw, do we have to” pleas arose as dinner was announced.
 

Calls of “Hey Mr. Jim” and “Look over here Mr. Jim” rang out as joysticks clattered in the game room. Screens were paused so kids could be ushered into the gym for that day’s menu of mac and cheese, ham and a selection of side dishes from the kitchen that served almost 6,000 ho tmeals in 2010.
 

“One of the things I’m working on is to get parents to come eat with the kids,” explained the 29-year-old graduate of New York City’s St.John’s University.
 

Jim has an incrediblerapport with the kids.He’s making a huge difference in [their] lives.

~ MAJOR BARBARA SHIELS DIVISIONAL DIRECTOR
 

“That’s what families do,” Sells added. “They eat together. They come together at a table. Work schedules and other things make that hard to do for many of our families, but I want my kids (he calls all the participants “my kids”) to have the same experience that so many of us take for granted.”
 

Adult outreach goes beyond an invitation to the table. The center’s adult program serves over 100 meals every weekday, but Sells aims to offer additional lures to attract more grown-ups from the neighborhood.
 

“I’m inviting adults into our computer lab,” he said of the facility equipped with a dozen stations, several of them new due to his fundraising efforts. “It’s hard to get a job if you’re not computer literate.” It’s even harder to get a job, he added, if you don’tknow how to put together a resume.
 

“Hey Cornell, how ya doin’” chirped Sells to one of the younger kids.“You’re going to play flag football with us again next season, right?”
 

It was a throwaway question. Sells already knew the answer. The bright-eyed Lothrop Elementary School second-grader had worn his football cleats to bed last fall the night before kicking off his introduction to organized sports in the league that is yet another Sells innovation.
 

“I love coming here to play football and basketball” beamed the boy sporting a faux-hawk who wants to become a policeman, “but my mom likes Mr. Jim because he helps me with my homework.”

 

PHOTOGRAPHY COURTESY OF THE SALVATION ARMY

-end- metroMAGAZINE

 

 

 

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