State is on the way to making playgrounds more accessible

Jake’s Place is the first inclusive playground in New Jersey. Built in 2011 over three days with lots of donations of money, time and labor, it accommodates children with and without disabilities.

“All playgrounds today are ADA-compliant which means that a child in a wheelchair, for instance, can wheel up to it and look at it. That they have access. But, they can’t play on it. Jake couldn’t play on any playground and he wanted to do his physical therapy everyday on a playground,” said Jim Cummings, a board member at Build Jake’s Place.

Jim and Lynn Cummings were the grandparents of Jacob Cummings-Nasto. He was born with a heart ailment that took his life at two and a half years. His mother conceived of Jake’s Place and his family worked tirelessly to fundraise, partner and make the dream a reality.

“There’s nothing to replace a loss of a child. There’s not anything that replaces the loss of anyone you love, right? But, when you see all these happy, smiling children, it’s very life-giving to us. And every one of these kids represents our grandson, so it’s a wonderful tribute to his memory,” said Lynn.

“We hear him laughing here all the time. We can hear him laughing. He would have loved this place,” Jim said. “We’ve actually seen kids in wheelchairs, they have such strong upper body strength, that they pull themselves up onto this and pull themselves onto the rock.”

The Cummings gave NJTV News a tour, show-and-tell style, of Jake’s Place with a ramp for children and adults on crutches or in wheelchairs. Long and winding, it leads to several fun stops.

Lynn helps playmates on the Sway Fun. It simulates a boat on the water.

“An all-inclusive playground is not just about the play part of it. It’s really about all of the movements that help the brain to develop. It helps the motor skills to develop,” Lynn said.

Other features include wheelchair-height fun boards with a xylophone and kaleidoscope on one side, the alphabet on the opposite, and a buddy station where a wheelchair can fit in the middle for play.

Arthur Aston, the executive director of the nonprofit Build Jake’s Place, was born with spina bifida.

“To see something like this, an accessible playground where all children can play together, is just amazing. It’s something I never thought that I would see in my lifetime,” said Aston.

Jake’s Place inspired other advocates to rebuild a park with inclusive access in Barrington this month. This summer, the Build Jake’s Place nonprofit is building on its success, adding another inclusive playground in Delran in Burlington County. The Cummings and advocates say all 21 counties should have at least one and they lobbied and educated lawmakers who agreed

The Jake’s Law bill sailed through the Assembly and Senate with no opposition. It would require state agencies to set guidelines and standards that exceed those of the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.

If signed into law, counties will be able to apply for and dip in to those same Green Acres funds that they already do for parks and recreation projects to build their own versions of Jake’s Place.

“This is something that we should be doing as a state. And I am very pleased to know that I have colleagues who also agree with this,” said Assemblywoman Gabriela Mosquera.

Jake’s Place costs hundreds of thousands of dollars to build, but parents in the park say it’s worth every penny.

“Kids love it and it’s exciting. We love because it’s all fenced in and everyone can play,” said Cherry Hill resident Vanessa Dickinson.

“The parents are really involved, the guardians who are here watching after kids. So, I found myself swinging somebody else,” said Dina Christophe from Cherry Hill.

“We’re here quite often. One young man was in the Sway Fun. I walked up to him and his aide was crying and I said ‘Is there something wrong?’ and, ‘Can I help you?’ And she said, ‘I’ve been his aide for three years and I’ve never seen him laugh,’” Jim recounted.

The Cummings say those laughs sometimes come by the school busloads and from folks out of state. Some think they even have to pay. There’s no admission fee, just lots of fun and learning for all kids.

“And I think having a law, Jake’s Law, helps us to be able to spread that kind of an educational message of how important this is. Not because you didn’t necessarily care, but because you just didn’t know,” Lynn said.