A first of its kind inclusive complex, the RWJBarnabas Health Field of Dreams, will open Saturday in Toms River, New Jersey.
The grand opening of the $3.6 million facility comes after nearly five years of planning and pandemic-related delays and challenges. The Toms River complex will focus on serving children with physical and social disabilities.
While the opening of the complex is a triumph, it all started as a horrifying nightmare. Christian Kane was driving with his 19-month-old son, Gavin, when a beer truck barreled into his car near Toms River High School North. As a result, Gavin had a traumatic brain injury, a right front temporal stroke and a complete skull fracture.
Today, Gavin is 11 years old. He’s in a wheelchair most of the time, and he communicates primarily through an iPad. But he is an otherwise ordinary preteen cracking jokes at his parents’ expense and wanting to play with his friends.
But it hasn’t been easy.
“He wanted to do everything that all the other kids were doing,” said Mary Kane, Gavin’s mother. “But because of his lack of strength to hold up his head, he was very limited.”
As Gavin grew, she found it increasingly difficult to take him to playgrounds and have him participate in sports. The Kanes have six children.
“It was very challenging, almost impossible, for me to get him on a swing or a slide or anything like that, so he didn’t. We could go to the playgrounds and he could watch, and that’s not fun,” Mary Kane said.
Five years ago, Gavin’s parents grew tired of watching him sit on the sidelines. They dreamed up a playground and sports complex where kids of all abilities could play and participate in physical activities together. “To be able to do things they didn’t think they’d be ever able to do,” said Christian Kane.
Christian Kane, an Advanced Placement statistics teacher at Toms River High School North, poured everything he had into this project. The $3.6 million dollar facility would require major sponsors, state aid, and grants and fundraising, in addition to specialized equipment to accommodate kids of all abilities.
Christian Kane said the biggest challenge came when the pandemic nearly threatened the entire project. It meant a major increase in prices for raw materials and a shortage of construction workers.
“Because of inflation, something that costs $4 that was going to be donated now is $12 to $13,” he said. “All of a sudden, I’m getting these bills that I know somehow I’m going to have to fund.”
Now that the complex is ready, Christian Kane said he’s been getting inquiries from groups from all over the state looking to visit the facility. The Kanes gave CNBC a first look at the facility ahead of its official opening. Gavin and some of his closest friends also got the chance to visit the complex for the first time.
“You can hear the kids’ pure enjoyment in the background and you knew that that’s what they needed,” said Christian Kane.
The 3.5-acre, state-of-the-art complex features a basketball court made of special materials to accommodate wheelchairs, a miniature golf course, a baseball diamond and a playground that caters to children with walkers, wheelchairs and more. It also has a community garden, pavilion, snack bar and a quiet corner that looks off into the woods.
“You know when you come here that you’re not going to be stared at and you’re not going to be looked at and you know you’re coming here for pure enjoyment and fun,” said Christian Kane.
Doctors say the benefits of such a facility are crucial.
“The opportunity to be playing, learning and showing off one’s abilities outside of the hospital is just as important sometimes as the medications and therapies that occur within the hospital,” said Matt McDonald, CEO of Children’s Specialized Hospital, which treats Gavin.
As Gavin tested out the facility for the first time, he showed pure joy being around other children who were similar to him. For parents, it’s a place to let their guard down and socialize with other families going though similar challenges.
Christian Kane said he hopes this is just the start. He wants others to see the importance and success of his complex and build facilities just like it.
He passes the site of his crash every day on his way to work, but he said driving near the new Field of Dreams makes his days a little bit better.
“Driving past it and seeing kids and adults playing here,” he said. “All the hard work to build this was all worth it.”