“Grief is exhausting. You don’t want to wake up from it,” admits Lynn Cummings. Her grandson Jacob Myles Cummings Nasto passed away in 2008. Jake’s rare heart condition, hypoplastic left heart syndrome, kept him in the hospital for operations and away from his favorite place: the playground.
“Jake’s disability made it difficult for him to play on the playground, but he loved it there. He’d light up when other kids were around. Seeing them have fun was his motivation,” she recalls.
Jake received his physical therapy on the local playground, which is typical for special needs children.
After Jake passed away, his parents Joseph Nasto and Kate Cummings were devastated. “My daughter [Kate] was never happy. But when we received a gift to do something in memory of Jake, she knew what to do: build a playground. This idea gave us life,” Lynn explains.
That’s how Build Jake’s Playground (BJP), their nonprofit organization dedicated to building all-access playgrounds, took its first steps.
During the fundraising and planning process, they worked with Michael Wiley, their General Recreation sales consultant. “Michael listened to our vision,” Lynn says, “When we asked what we could do, both he and Landscape Structures fought for that vision. When Kate reviewed the design, her face lit up. She was so excited!”
They also were invited to visit Landscape Structures Inc. (LSI) in Delano, Minnesota. Lynn recalls, “It was wise to bring us there. There’s no replacement for face-to-face relationships. We became immersed in LSI’s values which perfectly aligned with ours,” BJP wanted to work with a company that was green and well researched in accessible, inclusive designs.
General Recreation and BJP organized and oversaw the community-build in September. Hundreds of volunteers from the region and neighboring states came daily to help build Jake’s playground. “For two full weeks, both Andy Cush [from General Recreation] and Michael were always on-site to guide and help us,” says Lynn.
On October 15, “Jake’s Place” officially opened at Challenge Grove Park in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. As the first fully accessible playground in Camden County, it’s a boon to the some 12,000 children with disabilities living in Camden County.
During the construction, Lynn admits that she didn’t feel like herself. “I didn’t understand why I didn’t feel exhilaration. The morning of opening day, though, I heard noises coming from the playground. I looked up and my heart just burst open. Children from our local school for disabilities were playing. When I saw them, it was the most amazing feeling of accomplishment in the world.”
What’s next for Build Jake’s Playground? The organization hopes to build a Miracle League Field, a handicap-accessible baseball field. “But building these parks is not enough,” explains Lynn. “Education is a huge component of what we must do, to help others understand that they don’t have to be uncomfortable or afraid of people with special needs.”
Check out the time lapsed video of this large 3 day Jake’s Playground community build playground project.