A field specially designed for special needs athletes has officially opened at Vernon's Northeast School.
VERNON, CT — A specially designed field for special needs athletes officially opened Wednesday on the campus of Vernon's Northeast School.
The opening ceremonies were the culmination of a collaborative effort between the town of Vernon, the Vernon public school system, the Miracle League of Northern Connecticut, the Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation and a host of local businesses, volunteers and donors. The field will now host special needs events through the region.
The Ripken Foundation's Chuck Brady played off those team efforts. He said it is also a fitting tribute to Cal Sr., who had a passion for working with young people.
Brady told the story of how, on road trips, Cal Sr. would just grab a bag of baseballs and a fungo bat and seek out kids for impromptu workouts. They would then be followed by a lesson in life.
"This is a great day for the kids," he said.
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The northern Connecticut field marks the 114th facility the Ripken Foundation has sponsored.
Vernon Mayor Daniel Champagne, Superintendent of Schools Joseph Macary and Steve and Laurel Leibowitz of the Miracle League of Northern Connecticut talked about how the whole thing came about. It was about a year ago, and when plans fell through in Tolland, the couple approached Vernon officials.
Vernon, which had a flat piece of land at Northeast, right on Route 30 and close to Interstate 84 — at a school — offered it up right away. The town council and school board endorsed the plan.
Macary called it an extension of the school system's philosophy that every child should have opportunities academically, socially and athletically, regardless of background.
Construction took place this summer.
The project cost was about $1 million with the Ripken Foundation as a major backer. The town provided $175,000 for expansion of the parking lot for the field, and provided in-kind services by town employees.
"This is a great day for Vernon, for Connecticut, and for the children who will enjoy this field for decades to come," Champagne said. "This project represents the good that government can achieve with community support. I thought it was a great idea. We immediately went to work on a plan to make it happen and, a year later, here we are."
While the field is built to be fully accessible to children who have disabilities, it will also be available for use by Northeast School students and others, Macary has said.
"Everything we do in the Vernon Public Schools is in the best interest of all children," Macary said. "When this proposal came to me and to the board of education, I immediately thought of our equity stance. How do we make it equitable for all children, in spite of their abilities."
The Vernon Miracle League Field has a synthetic short turf surface that is fully accessible to people who use wheelchairs or have other mobility issues. The field also has wheelchair-accessible dugouts and is completely flat and barrier free so that children with visual disabilities can participate. During play, each athlete traditionally has a buddy.
Louis Ballestas, a 13-year-old Miracle League athlete, came with his baseball bat and glove. He took a tour of the infield with Laurel Leibowitz and called the facility "beautiful." He then tested the surface by whizzing up the first bae line in his motorized chair.
After that, it was deemed Louis approved.
Both Laurel and Steve Leibowitz used the word "surreal" to describe the day, separately and unprompted.
"We spent years searching for a place to build a field like this and I am just delighted that Mayor Champagne and Dr. Macary embraced our vision for creating a field that is truly for all children,” Steve Leibowitz said. "Every child deserves a chance to participate in and experience sports. We have achieved something very special here in Vernon."
There are about 300 Miracle Fields across the U.S. and two others in Connecticut, in West Hartford and East Lyme.
Town Administrator Michael Purcaro said town staff from multiple departments "enthusiastically" came together to make the project happen.
"Children and families from all over Connecticut are going to visit Vernon to play at the Miracle Field,” Purcaro said. "Those families will get to know what many of us already know – that Vernon is a welcoming community and a great place to live, work and play."
Vernon's monetary share came from federal American Recovery Act. U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney's office presented the Miracle League with a U.S. flag for the facility.
"Congratulations to the Town of Vernon for the opening of Miracle League Field of Northern Connecticut—a crown jewel of recreation and opportunity for children and visitors of all abilities," Courtney said. "I am pleased that a $175,000 federal American Rescue Plan grant could help make this project a reality and look forward to enjoying the field alongside eastern Connecticut residents for years to come."
Steve Leibowitz borrowed a line from the movie "Field of Dreams" to sum up his feelings. Well, sort of.
"Is this heaven? No it's Vernon," he said.
Here's a look at the grand opening:
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