By Francesca Sacco
Nestled with the depths of the historic St. Mary Magdalene in the heart of Homestead is a nonprofit unlike any other.
The abandoned church has been transformed into a state-of-the-art, two-level challenge course and a 160-foot zip line that connects the choir lift to the former alter. The Dragon’s Den is the brainchild of Giulia Lozza Petrucci.
More than 17 years in the making, Petrucci conceived of the idea for Dragon’s Den while she and her husband and co-founder, Bill, were on a mission trip – which was also their honeymoon – in Patagonia, South America.
“The mission was led by a charismatic priest who taught us how important it is to surround children with beauty to inspire them to dream of possibilities above and beyond what they see in their everyday life,” Petrucci said.
So when they stumbled upon the abandoned Italianate Renaissance church in 2015, Petrucci knew they had found the perfect backdrop to create an innovative community center for children of all abilities.
While she was initially unsure what she wanted the space to look like, Petrucci remained patient and open.
“I had an idea, and when you have ideas, you find helpers along the way,” she said. “I knew I wanted to do something, but I just didn’t know how to go about it.”
Originally from Italy, Petrucci and her family returned for a visit. During their trip, her children visited a rope course. Intrigued by their response to the experience, Petrucci researched the transformational benefits of challenge courses on children’s development. Research shows that challenge courses help develop self-confidence, self-efficacy, focus, strategic thinking and leadership, and team-building and cooperation skills.
“My children are shy, and upon returning from the course, they were so self-confident,” the nonprofit’s executive director said. “I had never seen them like that before. I needed to see the place for myself and eventually befriended the owner. When we returned home, I started to put the plan in place to replicate the course here.”
Dragon’s Den was officially founded in 2016, and with the help of donations and 80 volunteers from two continents, the rope course took shape. Designed by the course owner in Italy, work on the space started in January 2019 and was completed in May 2019. Determined and dedicated to preserving the church’s original architecture, it incorporates and plays off the existing columns and layout.
The rope course features two levels: the lower course, which sits 3 feet off the ground and the upper course, which sits 17 feet above the ground. The lower level features 25 elements and is slated for children 5 and up. The upper layout features 17 pieces, including balance beams and tight ropes, and is slated for children 9 and older. Visitors can choose to make the course more or less challenging, depending on their comfort level. Parents and adults are encouraged to participate.
Matthew Needles, the course manager, has been doing challenge courses for the last decade. He finds the Dragon’s Den layout exciting.
“If you’re thrill seeking, it scratches the same itch as a roller coaster. But it also provides growth,” Needles said. “We’ve had a few people in their 70s do the upper course. It’s really a one-of-a-kind thing. It’s the only challenge course inside a church. It’s awesome, but I might be a little biased on that.”
All participants must complete the training program, or ground school, with trained staff and mentors before tackling the course.
“We take them through the equipment and procedures,” Needles said.
The experience takes an hour to an hour and a half to complete. Admission varies depending on the course, and private event options are available. COVID-19 precautions are in place.
Since the course opened in August, roughly 200 people have visited. Petrucci is overjoyed by the course’s reception from the community, local school districts and organizations, and looks forward to watching the course’s impact on those young and old.
“It’s been amazing to see my dream come to life, and I’ve been lucky to count on some many wonderful people,” Petrucci said. “When you see a kid on the rope course or read a guest comment, it makes it all worth it.”
For more information or to book a Dragon’s Den experience, visit dragonsdenpgh.org or call 412-461-3336.