Friends For Life
By Wixson Huffstetler
After seeing a video in 2010 of The Miracle League, a baseball league for special needs children and adults, I, along with Mayor Harold Perrin and Softball Coordinator Sharron Turman, agreed we needed to bring that type of inclusive recreation to the city of Jonesboro, Ark.
From that point forward, Turman and I and a larger team began inviting businesses to lunch to share our vision. Within months, more than 60 businesses had made a financial commitment, and the dream was well on its way to becoming a reality.
Creating A Showcase
We started by visiting Miracle Leagues across the country and making a list of what we liked at each site. Turman even took a vacation during which she visited 20 Miracle Leagues along the East Coast.
After the tours, our team realized we wanted to create a complex that would be a showcase for all other Miracle Leagues. What started as a $1-million project grew into a $3.2-million project—none of which came from taxpayers.
The vision came to life as a 20-acre recreation complex, with a rubberized ball field for the children and adults with special needs, an inclusive playground, a concession stand, restrooms, and a quiet room designed especially for children with autism. But the Jonesboro Miracle League will provide more than just softball/baseball. Turman and her team plan to offer whatever sport kids want to play.
Focused On Play For All
Prior to the opening of the park, the city had only one inclusive playground. I knew that focusing on the Miracle League playground would bring the community even closer.
When I first started on this project, I was new to parks and recreation. I had done a great deal of research on inclusive play, and it was close to my heart. I want my son to be able to interact with kids of all abilities. And I want those kids with special needs to experience the same things as my son does.
The most important consideration for the playground design was providing access for kids and families using mobility devices. The league incorporated ramps throughout the playground—from the bottom to the top.
In addition to access, the playground design focused on including many sensory-stimulating activities, including a variety of playground swings, spinners, and bouncers. And because there are so many activities available, several clinics are using the inclusive playground for therapy. Meanwhile, occupational therapy classes from Arkansas State University (ASU) are taking field trips to the space to learn how real-life environments can be used as a therapy setting.
Because of this inclusive recreation space, friendships have been made between children of all abilities. It’s unbelievable what this has done for our community.
Creating Lasting Relationships
Jonesboro Miracle League Park held a grand opening in November 2014, and the ball field was open for play the following spring. The first season was a bit chaotic, but we never had problems finding buddies to participate with the players.
Company employees, civic club members, ASU students, and more have come out to play ball with the Miracle League kids. The community members are creating relationships during games that will last a lifetime.
Hoping to expand programming at the park, we are looking into starting a league for Wounded Warriors to allow veterans an opportunity to come together and play ball. Additionally, we have been hosting Movies in the Park one Saturday a month, and we encourage families to visit the playground before they get comfortable on the field for the featured film.
After working on this project, I realize how important it is to have inclusive play opportunities available for everyone. Many people just don’t understand. From this point, I will only be working on inclusive playgrounds. It’s something that every city should invest in.
Wixson Huffstetler is the Director of Parks and Recreation for the City of Jonesboro, Ark. Reach him at WHuffstetler@jonesboro.org.