Fran Northridge, director of publicity for South Jersey Field of Dreams, was shopping when she got the call saying the organization's longtime dream would soon be a reality.
She raced from the store to her car, where she phoned the board members to share the news that AmeriHealth Caritas Partnership, the nonprofit arm of the AmeriHealth Caritas Family of Companies, had selected them as the next build site for its Safe Playgrounds project.
On Sept. 28, volunteers from AmeriHealth descended on the Field of Dreams in Absecon to assemble the playground, which is designed to accommodate children with physical and developmental disabilities. The addition is a boost for the facility that's become a haven for special needs kids and their families in South Jersey, Northridge said.
"It was a dream come true for us," Northridge said. "What this means for our kids is, it extends the recreational experience while they're there, but it goes beyond just being a benefit to our kids - it's for everyone in South Jersey."
Field of Dreams was founded in 2003 by four local men with a passion for serving special needs and disabled children and young adults in the region. It offers physically and mentally disabled children and young adults a chance to play organized team baseball each spring and fall, and its handicapped-accessible facility is open to the community.
The group has long sought to augment its offerings with a playground, but the six-figure cost of such a project was prohibitive, Northridge said.
AmeriHealth Caritas Partnership found Field of Dreams through Kathy Enerlich, executive director of PerformCare New Jersey, a behavioral health managed care company. Enerlich, who has worked with Field of Dreams in the past, alerted AmeriHealth Caritas Partnership President Maria Battle to the need.
Battle, who visited Field of Dreams this past season, said it's a worthy recipient of her organization's 21st playground.
"They're a phenomenal group of folks," Battle said. "I went to one of their kickoffs for the summer, and oh my gosh, it was like a wonderful party."
Field of Dreams contributed $15,000 to the construction of the playground, which amounts to just a small fraction of the total cost.
The playground was specially designed to accommodate children with disabilities, and boasts wide, wheelchair-accessible paths and generous handholds for kids whose conditions make it difficult to walk or stand unaided.
John Glassey, one of the founders of the organization, said the group had been kicking around the idea of adding a playground since shortly after it started. Because of financial constraints, the group planned the project in five stages, and AmeriHealth's contribution brings them up to stage three. The group plans to monitor the playground's use in the next couple years to figure out what sort of additions would best serve its needs, he said.
The new playground will be valuable as a place where athletes can play while they wait for their games to start. But more than that, Glassey said, it will allow the kids to partake in a rite of passage they otherwise could not.
"When you were a kid, you went to the local playground to hang out, and these kids are no different," Glassey said. "They don't have adaptive playground equipment to play on very often, and this'll be adaptive equipment."
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