After seeing children with and without disabilities play baseball on a rubber, wheelchair-friendly field in Sewell, Ed McDonnell began thinking that Camden County needed such a field of its own.
"I really loved the idea," said the Camden County freeholder. "The real focus is to go beyond just having a place for disabled kids to play . . . to not just watch, but play with them."
McDonnell, the longtime chairman of the board of directors at the Larc School, a nonprofit special-education school in Bellmawr, has been talking about building the field for five years, he said. He has a daughter at the school.
The concept is now on the verge of becoming reality in Cherry Hill, with a new rubber-surfaced field nearly complete at Challenge Grove Park.
The county spent $337,000 from its open-space fund to build the field - often described as a "Miracle Field." The first was built in Georgia more than a decade ago.
Today, more than 250 Miracle League organizations exist, according to the national Miracle League Association. During games, other children act as buddies, helping players with hitting, catching, or running the bases.
No one has come forward yet to run a league at the Cherry Hill field, which county officials say will be finished by summer.
But McDonnell is confident someone will. "Once people hear about it, they're thrilled."
The field won't be just for baseball: It can be used for other sports, depending on the community's interest, McDonnell said.
"We didn't want to prescribe everything," he said. "It's going to create all kinds of opportunities for the disabled and abled to play together."
The new field sits next to Jake's Place, an playground designed for all children. Named after Jacob Myles Cummings Nasto, a toddler who died in 2007 as a result of a cardiac condition, Jake's Place opened in 2011, paid for by donations.
Members of the Build Jake's Place nonprofit also had expressed interest in building a Miracle Field, and "we were originally going to raise the money ourselves," said Jim Cummings, Jake's grandfather and a Build Jake's Place board member.
Cummings said Build Jake's Place approached the county with the proposal a year ago.
Since the county had money for the project, Cummings said, "they took it over, and we're running with it. And we're thrilled."
In Cherry Hill, about 145 children participate in the Challenger League, a baseball league for special-needs children that began eight years ago.
The children play on a Little League field off Haddonfield-Berlin Road, and "we're definitely interested" in the field at Challenge Grove, said president Steve Silverman.
He doesn't expect the league to transfer all of its games to the new field, which he said would be too small for the league's older participants.
"We've always been happy, tucked away in the woods playing ball," Silverman said. "Now that they're building it, it's a great addition. But we've always been satisfied with what we do."
At the field in Sewell, which was built in 2008, participation in a Miracle League has grown from 50 children to 116, said Chad Devino, a teacher in the Gloucester County Special Services School District.
Initially, "we were very skeptical how many kids we were going to be getting," Devino said.
Next year, coordinators hope to field enough players to create a second league, he said.
They also hope to use the field more, but "we're not trying to overuse the surface." Upkeep, Devino said. is expensive.
The Camden County field has a more durable surface, and maintenance costs will be minimal, said county spokesman Dan Keashen.
Except for a scoreboard, the field at Challenge Grove is almost finished, said Frank Moran, director of the county parks department. He expects construction to end around June 1, although the field will not be immediately open to the public.
The county plans to seek reimbursement for the field from the state's Green Acres Program, which recently ran out of money to award for open-space projects, but has continued to accept applications.
As for the name of the field, the county is still seeking suggestions from the public, McDonnell said. He isn't partial to the name Miracle Field.
"The kind of whole point is not to make it a miracle," he said. "I just thought we could do something better."
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