TOMS RIVER – An excited group of Stafford Township students with multiple disabilities enjoyed a field trip made of the kind of dreams every kid longs for.
The RWJBarnabas Field of Dreams complex opened earlier this year and has already established itself as a big hit throughout the state. While there’s plenty to do for adults and children with special needs, there’s also an emphasis on facilitating an inclusive environment.
Students eagerly stepped off the school bus and headed towards the black gate ahead of them. They came from Ocean Acres School, McKinley and Stafford’s Intermediate School. Staff members and parents stood beside them and listened to instructions about the adventure that was about to unfold.
Tiffany Eberle, Principal of McKinley Avenue Elementary School, appeared just as excited as the students as she watched them move on to exhibit all types of glee. Youngsters hopped on swings, jumped together on a trampoline, and struck notes on larger-than-life musical instruments.
Sixth grader Danica Howarth joined up with her fifth grade friend, Carmen Taylor to explore the different features of the playground area. Danica took it upon herself to take on the role of interviewing Carmen about her favorite activity.
After asking about the rock climbing, swings, slide and trampoline, Danica was ready to speak on Carmen’s behalf.
“She likes this ‘spinny’ thing,” Danica said. “We like other stuff too, but that’s the one she likes best.”
Carmen nodded her head in agreement as she sat in the sole orange seat and waited for Danica to give her a good spin. Both girls had a look of pure joy on a playground different than any other they’d seen before.
“This is different than the parks by my house,” exclaimed Danica. “That one just has swings and slides.”
One of the smaller students headed to a big arch and found out what would happen if she pushed a side button. Music burst out with dance cues that the young girl made her own. She hopped a bit onto a big star as an adult watched and smiled.
Later, the group would get together and share lunch under tables in a pavilion especially designed for gatherings of all types.
“We hope to bring our kids here four times a year,” Eberle said. “And add in more than our MD (multiple disabilities) classes.”
Eberle’s declaration hit its mark with Christian Kane, one of the creators of the Field of Dreams project. He and his wife, Mary, bonded further in their quest to find something that would make recreational activities easier for people with challenges.
The idea for the complex started with a personal experience when the Kanes’ son, Gavin, was severely injured in a motor vehicle crash. Left with serious disabilities, including a traumatic brain injury, Gavin inspired the initiative. Help and funding came from a variety of generous benefactors and never-stopping determination.
Not surprisingly, COVID-19 had some impact on the project that took five years to come to fruition. Despite rises in material costs and other delays, the Kanes weren’t about to let anything get in their way.
A teacher himself, Christian believes that inclusiveness benefits both typical kids and those with special needs. His face lit up when Eberle shared the plans she thought would work for Stafford Township Schools.
Sean Reilly, the Principal of Stafford Intermediate School joined in the conversation with some additional thoughts along the same lines.
“We’ve done this at our Friendship Field Days,” Reilly shared. “We have a field day for our MD kids and our General Education kids help us as partners.”
The Members Only schedule of hours for Field of Dreams and more information about the complex is available on their website: rwjbhfieldofdreams.com. Membership is for special needs families and available at no cost.
For some Stafford students, the day at the RWJBarnabas Field of Dreams complex bore some resemblance to the big screen flick – “a place where dreams come true.”