Dan Johnson

When baseball season is in full swing at the Miracle Field, associate professor Dan Johnson spends hours every week coordinating games, meeting with players and their parents, and guiding UNCW student volunteers.

“We have a whole range of players. We have kids with autism and ADHD, a variety of players in wheelchairs, and kids who don’t speak, but none of it matters on the Miracle Field,” Johnson said.  “We hold the bat with them, we take them all the way through the bases, and we help them be a part of the team in whatever way they want to be a part of the team.”

About 90 children and teens kids living with physical, cognitive or developmental challenges play on six teams that meet at the Miracle Field, which opened last August at Olsen Park in New Hanover County. Johnson, a driving force behind the field’s construction, teaches recreation therapy in the School of Health and Applied Human Sciences. He inspired a cadre of community, government, healthcare and business leaders to collaborate on the Miracle Field and a fully-accessible playground nearby.

He has recruited recreation therapy students as well as students from other majors to serve as the players’ “buddies.” They help the kids navigate the ins and outs of baseball, teaching them a diverse range of skills, from moving around the bases to figuring out how to be a part of a team.

“Our students are learning how to work with individual players, how to understand what motivates them,” Johnson said. “They are learning how to anticipate situations, become observant, eliminate risk and take care of things right away.”

UNCW’s students also get to know the players as people, an experience that naturally leads to better therapeutic services, Johnson said.

“It is important to see the players out there on the field, with their families in a community setting, rather than in a school or a hospital.”

Johnson serves as chair of Accessible Coastal Carolina Events Sports and Services (ACCESS) of Wilmington, the local non-profit organization that spearheaded the field's construction in partnership with the national Miracle League.  Although the field and playground were built with K-12 students in mind, he never stops thinking about new ways to use the facilities to benefit the community.

- What about softball and kickball teams for adults with cognitive disabilities?

- What about safe exercise programs for dementia residents at eldercare centers?

- What about wiffle ball competitions where families with both disabled and non-disabled children play together?

- What about programming for Wounded Warriors?

Johnson runs through a litany of public health programs as fast as a kid rounds the bases after hitting a homerun. The important thing, he said, is to create and sustain a sense of community inclusiveness while promoting healthy lifestyles.

“This is the only Miracle Field in the nation partnering with a university and working with a recreation therapy program,” he said. “We’re going to become a national model for extraordinary things.”