When Eric Urfer plays host to a visitor at the new Independence Ability Field, which is designed for children with special needs, he sounds more like a proud father than Independence’s parks and recreation director.
The project, which includes an inclusive playground, a spray ground water park and a state-of-the-art baseball field is nearing completion at McCoy Park, on Bess Truman Parkway just south of the Truman Library.
And Urfer and his staff know it’s going to make a big impact on the community.
“Census data shows that our community has more children with disabilities than any other surrounding community, so there was a need for something like this,” Urfer said, as construction crews worked in the background.
“It’s just amazing how so many things fell into place to make this are a reality.”
More than $1.4 million of the $1.6 million project has been raised, which means the 2-to-5-year-old playground and baseball field will be complete for Wednesday’s ribbon cutting ceremony, which will feature Hall of Fame legend Cal Ripken Jr., whose Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation provided much of the funds for the project.
The Independence Ability Field will feature expanded dugouts that can accommodate wheelchairs, a rubberized playing surface and bases that are flush with the turf for better access and mobility.
“Every time I look at this project, I get that feeling that we live in a special community, one that provides for youngsters with physical needs,” Urfer said.
“At so many playgrounds, a child with physical disabilities is forced contend with so many obstacles. But not here.”
When totally completed, the park will feature a 2-to-5 playground, a playground for kids aged 5 and up, the spray ground – which features an area where kids can go under a water spray to cool off – and the Independence Ability Field.
Ramps will replace stairs, swings and slides will be adapted and the cry of “Take me out to the ballgame!” will have new meaning for special needs children.
The Kansas City Royals donated $150,000 from the 2012 All-Star Game, and local labor unions have made monetary and man-hour donations.
“We are so lucky that the All-Star Game was here two years ago and the Royals were willing to participate in this project,” Urfer said. “Then, a member of our staff went to the National Parks and Recreation Conference and met people from the Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation, and all the pieces just seemed to come together.”
The idea for such a park came from Natalie Blakemore, the founder of the group Unlimited Play, who created the first such park in Lake St. Louis, Mo.
“While the park is designed for children, we also found out that it can fill other needs,” Urfer explained. “We talked with people who work with veterans who return from action with injuries that place them in wheelchairs, and now, they can come with their children and play in a park that gives them more access.
“Isn’t that great? This is going to be a gathering point for so many family members, we can’t wait for it to open.”
It’s also going to have an Independence-flavored theme, courtesy of Urfer’s 15-year-old daughter Mary.
“We wanted a theme that would represent Independence and I am proud to say that my daughter came up with a Three Trails theme that everyone liked, so that’s what we’re using.”
If you need a boost of community pride, or feel like this crazy world has little to offer, take a trip to McCoy Park, where your spirit will soar and heart will sing.
And bring a tissue or two, because the tears that will stream down your face will be tears of pure joy.
Bill Althaus is a sportswriter for The Examiner.