Giant Leaps: How Dragon’s Den Breathes New Life into Youth Activities
An extensive ropes course, 160-foot zipline and strong community spirit now occupy the former St. Mary Magdalene church in Homestead in the form of Dragon’s Den.
In Italian, there’s a word that describes a central and safe place, usually next to a church, where children can go after school. This haven might host structured group activities, classes, camps or a space to do homework, overseen by volunteers aplenty making it come 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 a stone’s throw from the Waterfront. The space features a state-of-the-art rope challenge course, a 160-foot zipline and a wide range of programming available to neighborhood children.
One of the most visually impressive parts of Dragon’s Den (dragonsdenpgh.org) is indeed the rope course, spanning the length of what was once the church’s sanctuary. When children enter and see it for the first time, challenge course director Matthew Needles says the most common reaction is “awe and excitement.”
The course itself has two levels, divided by age group (ages 5-9 and 10 and up) and difficulty. Every Wednesday, programming is free to the entire Homestead community, and discounts are available for partner organizations, clubs and school field trips.
All programs, though, are free to the Knights of the Dragon, the organization’s flagship team of community ambassadors made up of mostly 5th and 6th grade 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 the most in our community, how they like to spend their time,” says Giulia Lozza Petrucci, the nonprofit’s founder and executive director.
The youth center opened its doors in September after lengthy repairs and remodeling efforts. The church had closed in 2009 and sat abandoned until Petrucci and her husband purchased the property in 2016. Despite opening in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, Dragon’s Den celebrated its 1,000th participant on the rope course in April — and the kids keep coming.
“Obviously, it took a long time. But, you know, we opened when we felt like the families and the children needed us the most,” Petrucci says. “That’s our sign that we were meant to be here. Everything came together.”
For the local children, Dragon’s Den has already established itself as an irreplaceable asset, a community center where kids are free to be themselves.
Eleven-year-old Airyonna Flowers, who struggles with social anxiety, says Dragon’s Den helped her come out of her shell.
“This place makes me feel myself. People talk to me a lot while I’m here, and it really makes me feel happy,” she says. “If I could be here every single day, I would. I’m really glad I joined.”
Joining, too, is simple. According to Petrucci, members of the Knights of the Dragon must live in the community so that they can walk to Dragon’s Den independently. When a child is interested, their parents or guardians are brought in for an interview and to complete some paperwork, including a waiver, and the children are warmly welcomed into the program.
Starting this summer, Dragon’s Den will be offering a variety of camps throughout July and August. According to Joshua Dick, part-time facilitator, educator and resident jack-of-all-trades, 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’s a member of Knights of the Dragon.
“It’s really helpful, because it’s sometimes stressful here. I’m in high school now, it’s kind of hard, 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 became involved in theater. This year, he took home an honorable mention in Pittsburgh Public Theater’s Shakespeare Monologue & Scene Contest for a selection from the fifth act of “Richard III.” Prior to Dragon’s Den, he hadn’t even heard of the competition.
“The [contest] is something that happens every year, but I’m not necessarily sure that kids in public schools versus private schools have the same access to it,” says Pravin Wilkins, program director for Dragon’s Den. “That’s part of what we’re trying to do here — really open doors that either previously were closed or weren’t even in sight.”