It’s not unusual to see an old church in Pittsburgh reborn as something else, from housing to a brewpub. But this is a first: the former St. Mary Magdalene church in Homestead is getting new life as an indoor, multilevel rope challenge course, complete with a 160-foot zip line stretching from the choir loft to the former altar.
Designed for children in grades K-12, Dragon’s Den is meant to be more than a fitness course. The nonprofit aims to help children develop self-confidence, focus, strategic thinking, team-building and cooperation. The indoor attraction will also be open to adults and families at specific times.
Founder Giulia Lozza Petrucci was inspired by a ropes course her kids visited in Italy.
“My children are introverts, and I’d never seen them so happy and so proud of themselves,” says Petrucci, who is from Italy. “In Italy, we don’t have Kennywood days. Field trips have to be educational. I couldn’t see the educational part of the ropes course — it was not obvious to me. So I talked to them, and they were the first ones to tell me about the benefits of rope courses for the self-development of children.”
She brought the designers of that ropes course from Lecco, Italy to Homestead to help craft Dragon’s Den, which is slated to open in the next month.
The course is built on two levels. One is three feet off the ground, and the other is 17 feet off the ground, starting in the old choir loft. There are 41 platforms between the upper and lower courses, and every platform has a name and a different challenge: the Dragon’s Hopscotch, the Dragon’s Skateboard the Dragon’s Pogo Sticks.
“It’s very inviting, very tranquil,” says Wendoll Slade, 14, who is the first “knight” of the Dragon’s Den and walks to the facility almost every day. He’s there to test it out. “It’s a safe environment for kids to come to. It’s a beautiful place.”
Slade likes the Skateboard the best. After several unsuccessful attempts, he was finally able to balance on it way up in the air, with his mother watching.
Seven instructors at Dragon’s Den help train children how to use the course and also help them think about how the new problem-solving skills they’ve acquired can be used in daily life.
“We have two beliefs,” says Petrucci. “One is the challenge by choice. Our rope course can be navigated in different ways, depending on the level of challenge that the kids choose. The other one is non-interference. Unless the child is doing something that is putting himself or [another] in danger, we don’t interfere. So the kids can navigate the rope course at their own speed and level and think.
“It’s our way of helping children, not just with the self-development activities that are organized around the ropes course, but also for them to develop trust — in themselves and in others.”
Dragon’s Den Board Chair Georgiana Riley and her husband Bob (a Munhall native) led a campaign that raised $180,000 to build the course. Philanthropists Robert Levin and Dr. Kerry Bron made a gift to support staff salaries. The Jefferson Regional Foundation and the Heinz Endowments also invested. Eighty volunteers helped to build the course.
An exact date has not yet been set for Dragon’s Den to open to the public, but the staff is aiming for the end of September. For updates, check their website.
Dragon’s Den plans to provide a special preview to neighboring communities in September. Children who live in Homestead, West Homestead and Munhall will get free access if they have proof of a completed Census form as part of a partnership with the Jefferson Regional Foundation and the Jefferson Counts Initiative to help get more Census responses from a significantly undercounted and underfunded region.
Free demonstrations are held at Dragon’s Den every Friday at 3:30 p.m. Those interested should email firstname.lastname@example.org. Because of COVID-19, only 10 people are allowed in the space at a time, and screening and temperature checks will be conducted before entry.