In Italian there is a word that describes a central and safe place, usually next to a church, where children can go after school. This haven of peace can accommodate structured group activities, classes, camps or a space for homework, supervised by many volunteers who bring it together.
That word is oratorio, and it’s the inspiration behind Dragon’s Den, located in the former St. Mary Magdalene Church in Homestead, just steps from the Waterfront. The space features a state-of-the-art rope challenge course, a 160-foot zipline, and a wide array of programs available for neighborhood kids.
One of the most visually impressive parts of Dragon’s Den (dragonsdenpgh.org) is indeed the ropes course, which runs the entire length of what was once the sanctuary of the church. When kids come in and see it for the first time, challenge course director Matthew Needles says the most common reaction is “fear and excitement.”
The course itself has two levels, divided by age group (5-9 and 10 years and over) and difficulty. Programming is free to the entire Homestead community every Wednesday, and discounts are available for partner organizations, clubs, and school trips.
All programs, however, are free to the Dragon Knights, the organization’s flagship team of community ambassadors, made up primarily of grade 5 and 6 students who live in Homestead.
“[The Knights of the Dragon] are our eyes and ears in the community; they tell us what the children need most in our community, how they like to spend their time, ”explains Giulia Lozza Petrucci, founder and general manager of the association.
The youth center opened in September after extensive repair and renovation work. The church had closed in 2009 and remained abandoned until Petrucci and her husband bought the property in 2016. Despite opening amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Dragon’s Den celebrated its 1,000th participant on the course rope in April – and the children keep coming.
“Obviously, it took a long time. But, you know, we opened up when we felt families and kids needed us most, ”said Petrucci. “It’s our sign that we were meant to be here. It all came together.
For local children, Dragon’s Den has already established itself as an irreplaceable asset, a community center where children are free to be themselves.
Eleven-year-old Airyonna Flowers, who struggles with social anxiety, says Dragon’s Den has helped her come out of her shell.
“This place makes me feel like myself. People talk to me a lot while I’m here, and that makes me really happy, ”she says. “If I could be here everyday, I would. I’m really glad I joined.
Membership, too, is simple. According to Petrucci, members of the Dragon Knights must live in the community in order to be able to walk to Dragon’s Den independently. When a child is interested, their parents or guardians are called in for an interview and to complete certain documents, including a waiver, and children are warmly welcomed into the program.
Starting this summer, Dragon’s Den will be offering a variety of camps in July and August. According to Joshua Dick, a part-time facilitator, educator and jack-of-all-trades resident, there will be six summer camps targeting a variety of ages and interests.
Wendoll Slade, 14, was one of the volunteers who helped build the rope course. Now he is a member of the Dragon Knights.
“It’s really helpful, because it can be stressful here sometimes. I’m in high school now, it’s a bit difficult, so it’s just nice to have a place where you can come and relax, ”he says.
It was through Dragon’s Den that Slade got involved in theater. This year he won an honorable mention at the Shakespeare Monologue & Scene Contest at the Pittsburgh Public Theater for a selection of the fifth act of “Richard III”. Before Dragon’s Den, he hadn’t even heard of the competition.
“The [contest] It’s something that happens every year, but I’m not necessarily sure kids in public and private schools have the same access, ”says Pravin Wilkins, program director at Dragon’s Den. “It’s part of what we’re trying to do here – really open doors that were previously closed or not even in sight.”