Denver Rescue Mission inaugurates a new playground for families it serves

Denver Rescue Mission President and CEO Brad Meuli, at podium, inaugurates a new playground at his non-profit's transitional shelter for families. (Donna Bryson/Denverite)

Denver Rescue Mission President and CEO Brad Meuli, at podium, inaugurates a new playground at his non-profit's transitional shelter for families. (Donna Bryson/Denverite)

Donna Bryson. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

The Denver Rescue Mission’s inaugurated a new playground for the children of families it shelters. The faith-based nonprofit’s president and CEO, Brad Meuli, prefaced Wednesday’s ribbon cutting with a prayer that it be a place where kids could “just be kids.”

Meuli didn’t have to ask twice.

During the brief speech-making part of the program, about a dozen children had used their indoor voices even though they were outside. They only squirmed a little as they used giant scissors to help cut a bright red ribbon in a courtyard of a former hotel that houses the mission’s The Crossing transitional shelter. Then the kids swarmed the swings and shiny green slides and tossed footballs donated along with other toys and sports equipment by Good Sports and Rays Awareness.

The latter is a nonprofit founded by Broncos linebacker Shane Ray and his mother Sebrina Johnson. Other donors raised $120,000 to replace playground equipment that had been dilapidated and disused.

Ray was at practice Wednesday with his NFL team, which has long supported the Denver Rescue Mission. Johnson was at the playground helping kids wrestle open boxes of toys.

Johnson said she identified with the families at The Crossing. She described a period when she had just divorced her husband and lost a job in IT. Even with two master’s degrees, it took her eight months to find work in her field. In the meantime, she took odd jobs and relied on welfare and food banks. Friends helped her pay the mortgage on a house she had owned before her marriage. Though it had hardly any furniture, it allowed her to avoid a shelter.

“I often say we’re all a paycheck away from a situation where we’re desperate or destitute,” she said.

“I remember what it was like,” she said. She said her son, who was 10 at the time, remembers as well.

“He’s 25 now and he’s able to give back,” Johnson said.

Denver Rescue Mission is perhaps best known for its Lawrence Street homeless shelter downtown. The Crossing is in Park Hill, so close to the A Line that the sound of train horns reverberated several times over Wednesday’s ceremony.

At the 100-room Crossing, families get shelter, three meals a day, guidance from case managers and support such as financial planning classes. The Broncos helped equip a room where kids can study, play and just hang out.

The goal is to move famiiles to permanent housing in about a year, Meuli said.

“We’re working them toward self-sufficiency,” he said.

Keneshia Heard moved from Arkansas eight months ago with her husband and four children. Her mother had died and she was seeking comfort with family members in Denver.  They initially stayed with her sister. But her sister, pregnant with twins, needed room and the Heards came to their room at The Crossing two months ago. The Shelter has a wait list on which families typically spend six weeks.

Heard said she was shocked at the high cost of living in Denver.

“I’m going to need two jobs,” she said. She started to describe her search for work and an apartment when her oldest, 14-year-old Marion, interrupted.

“And you’re going back to school. You should say that, too,” Marion said.

Her mother is taking courses at the library to complete her high school diploma and earn a childcare certificate. Marion is at an all-girls charter school she loves. Despite their current hardship, they said Colorado has offered opportunities they did not have in Arkansas.

Heard said she hoped to be at The Crossing for only a few more weeks. In the meantime, she was grateful for the new playground.

“When we’re all in the room together with nothing to do, we tend to get on each other’s nerves,” she said.

While Marion’s siblings played, she set off with her mother to introduce themselves to Johnson.

Johnson said she tells families like the Heards: “If I can pick myself up, you can, too.”