A Miracle League of Their Own
Dan Johnson sees more than a place to play ball when he visits the Miracle Field and Playground, which opened in August 2013 at Olsen Park in New Hanover County.
He sees opportunity in action. He sees sports teams composed of children with physical, cognitive and developmental challenges joyfully rushing onto a field with rubberized turf designed specifically for them.
"Miracle Fields are a magical kind of place," Johnson says. "To see people grow through playing baseball is just extraordinary."
Johnson, an associate professor with the UNCW School of Health and Applied Human Sciences, envisioned a community-wide effort to build a Miracle Field and Playground in Wilmington. He serves as chair of Accessible Coastal Carolina Events Sports and Services (ACCESS) of Wilmington, the non-profit organization that spearheaded the field's construction in collaboration with the national Miracle League.
His passion for the project drew a dedicated group of supporters and inspired a public-private partnership among city and county agencies, the university, healthcare and advocacy groups, and many local and regional businesses.
Johnson looks forward to watching these same kids mature into teens and young adults, using the field and equipment to learn new skills, such as balance or coordination, or joining teams that feature players with and without disabilities. Someday, he also hopes to see these same individuals volunteering to help others as the Wilmington community has helped them.
"Let's give them the opportunity to volunteer. People are always volunteering for them. Let's switch that value around sometime," he says.
Johnson is working with other UNCW faculty on a grant proposal to develop health and wellness programs for people with disabilities that will build on the public-private partnerships formed during construction of the field and playground. He envisions research and applied learning opportunities for faculty and students in nursing, sociology, exercise science, special education and other fields. UNCW students already volunteer on-site. These efforts will fit within larger community health initiative spearheaded by the College of Health and Human Services under the leadership of Dean Charles Hardy.
With the field and playground as a resource, Johnson is eager to create recreational opportunities for as many people as possible - he sees future sports programs for adults in wheelchairs, nursing home residents and Wounded Warrior athletes.
For Johnson, the Miracle Field and Playground symbolize the Wilmington community's commitment to diversity and inclusion.
"A dad who has two children with Down's Syndrome told me: 'This place says we're valued.' I couldn't sum it up any better than that," Johnson explains. "That's what it says for the whole community - everyone is valued."