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The Truck Stops Here

The mobile Compass program keeps kids like Rico and Monkey playful.

On a recent afternoon that threatens rain, Thomas and Anthony are already waiting when the black and yellow Compass truck rolls up to Argo Park. The two boys race their BMX-style bikes along 47th Street parallel to the truck, skidding to an impressive, rubber-laying halt as the big vehicle noses over to the curb.

"Hurry up, man," Thomas says as Pierre French, the driver, steps out of the cab. "I'm hungry."

"Hold on," says French, who wears a Miami Dolphins hat backward on his bald head; he prefers to move slowly. He eventually produces three pizzas. "It's my birthday," he says. "Dana's bringing a cake, too." Dana Dubis, French's partner, arrives a few minutes later with a creamy cake.

Thomas, fourteen, and Anthony, thirteen, begin tucking into the pizza. A moment later, Thomas's brother, Rico, tears up on his bike. He has knee pads strapped on over his blue jeans.

"Outta my way," he yells, dumping his bike on the grass while he is still technically moving. "I'm hungry." The nine-year-old inhales a third of a piece of pizza on his first bite.

More kids trickle in toward the truck, mostly on beater bikes. Three girls sidle up to the back of the truck. "You gonna do art?" asks Hilda, seven, in a whisper. Dubis digs in the back of the truck for supplies -- a one-gallon container of white Elmer's glue, construction paper and markers. She brings out a big blue tarp and spreads it on the ground. The girls sit on it and start cutting paper.

French has grander plans. He hands Thomas a bag of water balloons. "Go fill these up," he says. The boys take off on their bikes to Thomas's house, across the park. While he waits, French pulls two speakers from the back of the truck and turns on a CD. "It's hard to find music they like without cussing in it," French gripes. "None of that bad, bad stuff here. We can't play that."

A few minutes later, Rico returns alone from the water-balloon-filling expedition. He's soaking wet. "Can I have a piece of cake?" he asks. French cuts him a piece the size of a brick, and Rico takes a huge bite. The Compass food is the first he's eaten all day.


Argo Park is an oasis of velvet green lawns a stone's throw from the Mousetrap at Logan Street; it's bounded by East 47th Street to the south and railroad tracks to the north. The surrounding houses are small and well kept, with nice gardens and iron window bars. A vibrating DA-BOOM bass line hums through the air constantly.

Part of the park was built on contaminated soil. But that could hardly matter less to the kids who swarm over it in the summer. The park boasts the Bill Swift baseball diamond, a large grassy field, a small playground and a popular outdoor swimming pool.

It did, anyway, until the pool was closed two years ago for repairs. It was scheduled to be ready for this summer's crowds, but delays and funding problems have scuttled the schedule. As a result, with less than two months remaining in the outdoor swimming season, the pool remained a dry hole in the ground surrounded by chain-link fence.

Having neighborhood kids roaming at loose ends over the long summer days was just asking for trouble. So as the break from school approached, several Denver nonprofits got together to try to fill the gap. One of them was the YMCA, which directed its four-year-old Compass program to Argo Park.

The idea of Compass, which was begun by the YMCA of St. Louis, is simple: If there is no rec center in the neighborhood, bring one there. To tote its activities to the people, the Denver Y has outfitted two rental-size black and yellow trucks.

Each is set up more or less the same way. In the back, on the right, is the sports equipment: every kind of ball a young boy or girl could ever need, bats, jerseys for games, tennis racquets, Frisbees, soccer goals, Hula Hoops and hockey sticks. The shelves on the left side hold books, crafts and games. The cabinet mounted on the back wall is for snacks and sidewalk chalk. Craft projects plaster the walls above the shelves.

At first, Compass had to sell itself to Denver-area neighborhoods. Now they ask the trucks to please come by. Sometimes the trucks set up shop at a park; other times, they commandeer a housing development. In a few instances, they've parked at local schools. This summer, the Y's two rigs have split their weekly rounds between Churchill Downs, a pale-yellow housing development near Yale and Quebec; the Parks Apartments, a development at Exposition and Hampden; and Argo Park. Anywhere from ten to fifty kids can show up on a given day.

"Once the kids realize we're here, they start pouring out," says Dubis. "All we ask is that they tell us their names. A lot of people are like, 'Can I sign up?' But you don't have to do any of that. Then it's juice and a snack, then arts, crafts and a sport." During the summer, it's pretty much all fun and games. While school is on, the Compass workers are also available to help kids with their homework.

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