Beyond Access to Inclusion

By Patrick Rumaker

Toms River Education Association member Christian Kane dreams of a future where the inclusion of all persons is considered in planning for public and private spaces. In that dream, Kane is thinking about something beyond mere accessibility.

The Toms River Field of Dreams will be that dream come true. It will be an all-inclusive complex that has a playground and multiple physical and cognitive environments that facilitate and recognize everyone’s right to fully participate in outdoor recreation.

“Too many times playgrounds have ‘accessible’ areas that are segregated from the rest of the playground,” Kane says. “The Toms River Field of Dreams will be built in such  a way that anyone with a special need—whether it has to do with vision, autism, traumatic brain injury, lupus, a stroke or any other condition—can be an active participant in the complex.”

But the Field of Dreams did not start with such ambitious goals. At first, it was simply going to be a place where Kane’s son Gavin could play baseball.

A dream inspired by Gavin

Gavin Kane was born an active, healthy baby boy. He started walking at 10 months old and started running a few weeks later.

“He was a typical ‘Norman Rockwell’ kid,” his mother, Mary Kane, says. “That kid who would have a frog hanging out of one pocket.”

Gavin’s early athleticism reminded his father of himself. Christian Kane envisioned a future in which Gavin and Gavin’s older brother, Owen, would go to games together and, as they grew older, join their father in basketball games and rounds of golf.

But the future turned out differently than Kane had imagined.

On July 12, 2012, when Gavin was 19 months old and secure in his car seat with his father behind the wheel, Kane was rear-ended by a fully loaded beer truck. Kane was briefly unconscious but awoke to silence. He was horrified to hear no sound coming from the back seat. Within minutes police and EMTs were at the accident scene.

Gavin survived, but he suffered a severe traumatic brain injury leaving him unable to speak, walk or independently care for himself. Yet his light still shines, his parents say.

“That’s what I want people to know,” his mother says. “He can feel, he can hear you and he understands everything you’re saying. He might not be able to walk or talk, but he’s exactly that same kid inside that he was before the accident.”

The light in Gavin motivated his parents to want him, and all children and adults like him, to shine.

A dream in progress

On land leased from Toms River Township for one dollar every five years, the Toms River Field of Dreams will feature a walking path with rehabilitative stations, a temperature-controlled pavilion, a snack shack, courts for basketball, bocce and shuffle board, a state of the art all-inclusive playground, a quiet corner, a baseball field, and rehabilitative fitness stations.

It won’t just be for children, Kane notes. With the help of local gardeners and other contractors, he envisions the installation of temporary features for inclusive events throughout the year.

“A grandmother who had a stroke could now collect pumpkins with her grandchildren in the fall or hunt for Easter eggs in the spring,” Kane says. “She can join them on the playground equipment and still be ‘Grandma.’”

While the land is essentially donated, the design of the complex, its excavation and the installation of equipment comes at a price tag of $2.2 million. Through the Kane’s dogged determination, combined with an enthusiastic army of supporters that includes Toms River School District students and staff, and residents of Ocean and Monmouth counties, more than $1.8 million has already been raised. Corporate partners have also stepped up and various aspects of the complex will bear their names.

As construction has already begun, Kane hopes to raise the remaining $400,000 by October 2019.

The Toms River community and the Kane family look forward to the completion of the Field of Dreams complex, so that Gavin and other children and adults like him can be free to be themselves without being the object of stares or pity.

“The Field of Dreams will offer children like Gavin a place to be a typical kid,” Kane says.

To learn more about the Toms River Field of Dreams complex, visit tomsriverfieldofdreams.com

Patrick Rumaker is the editor of the NJEA Review. He can be reached at prumaker@njea.org.

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