On Saturday morning, the Mack Road Valley Hi Community Center in south Sacramento bustled with activity.
Two teams of elementary school children squared off on the soccer field as parents and grandparents cheered from the sidelines. Teens played pickup basketball on one of the two top-of-the-line outdoor courts equipped with glass backboards, a gift from the Sacramento Kings and Kaiser Permanente.
Just Blessed, a dance troupe of girls ages 7 to 17, did the whip and nae nae on the end of the other court. It was warm Saturday, but as temperatures drop this winter, the girls can move into the new dance studio that volunteers are converting from a two-car garage at the front of the 7-acre parcel along Center Parkway just south of Mack Road.
The Mack Road Partnership, an improvement district funded by area businesses, and Rebuilding Together Sacramento, a nonprofit that rebuilds homes and facilities, gathered dozens of volunteers to spend Saturday working on the studio and beautifying the center, which occupies a building and land alongside St. Andrew Lutheran Church. They resealed wood benches, added bark to the playground, painted tires in an obstacle course, cemented posts and cleaned up the urban garden.
The scene represented a big change for the neighborhood. Just 2 1/2 years ago, the field behind the church was empty and lifeless.
The church is surrounded by five affordable housing apartment complexes, and only one of them had a playground. Residents of the high-crime area often stayed indoors or headed elsewhere for sports and recreation, said Lee Rosette, 57, who moved to the neighborhood more than two decades ago.
“You wouldn’t have seen any kids out here playing. You wouldn’t have seen any grown-ups out here,” Rosette said as he sat in a folding chair and watched his 6-year-old grandson play soccer. “The older kids hung out at 7-Eleven all day. There was nothing in this neighborhood at all.”
The Mack Road Partnership and the church launched a plan to build the center in 2013. The church’s pastor, Jon Loescher, rented the field, parking lot and a rundown home on the property to the partnership. Jenna Abbott, executive director of the Mack Road Partnership, and her team secured $25,000 from the community benefits program at Kaiser Permanente to rehabilitate the old home into the main building of the community center. Thousands turned out to volunteer on a community service day in 2014.
Abbott said the group has added new amenities to the center every year, including the basketball courts and playground. The soccer program, which costs just $10 per player to join, was started with a grant from the U.S. Soccer Foundation. The new studio, which will also house movement classes for seniors, is the major undertaking this year. SMUD, Bank of America, Kaiser, Construction Financial Management Association, Sacramento Association of Realtors, Accenture and American River Bank sponsored the work and Saturday’s volunteer day through Rebuilding Together.
“The idea of turning something ugly into something beautiful was very attractive to us,” Abbott said. “It’s still a challenged area, but it’s a lot better than it used to be.”