Two years ago, Barry Hackett, Chuck Dhyne, Larry McCarty, John Glassey and Jeff Hayden - longtime friends and advocates for disabled people, who in 2003 established the Absecon-based special needs baseball program South Jersey Field of Dreams - noticed that their field was wearing at the seams. They enlisted the aid of local workers unions for help, although they knew these patchwork repairs would only be borrowed time.
They started saving, and fundraising. Two penny-pinching years, 2,000 raffle tickets for a Harley Davidson motorcycle and $25,000 from Ronald McDonald House Charities later, the organization has a new, state-of-the-art turf field.
The field, which had its opening day April 29, is better-cushioned to absorb falls than the previous field, is a more even surface, and has better defined base paths that make it easier for athletes to stay within their bounds - and makes for a more authentic baseball experience.
"This makes it real; it's got the two-tone; it's like a real baseball field now," said Liz Rabush, whose 11-year-old daughter, Madison, who has cerebral palsy, has been with Field of Dreams since she was 5. "I think the kids, they get a kick out of it. It's a real thing."
Hackett got the idea to start Field of Dreams in the early 2000s, when his wife showed him an article about a similar program in Atlanta, Ga. He called Dhyne, McCarty, Glassey and Hayden, who have been his partners in a string of charitable projects starting in the early 1970s with New Jersey's first Special Olympics.
They secured funding for the project through the Donny Fund, a nonprofit they started in 1993 in memory of their friend Donald Sykes, as well as through assistance from the community. The City of Absecon donated the sandlot at Jonathan Pitney Recreation Park off Morton Road for their use, on the condition that the group maintain the field. Field of Dreams asked the city that the park be kept open to all - special needs and recreational Wiffle Ball leagues alike, and so far, both sides have held up their ends of the bargain.
In nine years, the program has grown from 40 athletes on four teams to more than 240 athletes on a dozen teams. Each player comes to bat twice, hitting a ball off a tee, and runs the bases. There are no strikes, no outs and no scores - just cheers.
Games are held once per week for eight weeks in the spring and four weeks in the fall.
Despite his and his partners' hard work in setting up the program, Hackett is quick to cede credit to his volunteers, many of whom travel hours to do donate their time. Some of them, he says, have done so for years.
"We're so blessed and we know it. We got a lot of credit, but for us the credit goes to these guys here, those guys out there," Hackett said, gesturing around the field to volunteers, who outnumber the athletes. "We couldn't do it without the volunteers."
Self-effacement is at the heart Field of Dreams' success and the first of its organizers' two mottos - hang your ego on the fence. Their second may have been even more instrumental to that success.
"We're too dumb to know what we can't do," Glassey said.
Contact Braden Campbell:
To learn more
See southjerseyfieldofdreams.com or call 609-641-1706.