County opens special needs ballpark

Let’s all play ball

Randy Lefko
Posted 11/8/17

ORANGE PARK – Brian McElyea got a little teary-eyed as he spoke to county commissioners, Special Olympics volunteers and a host of area first responders Tuesday night at a ribbon cutting ceremony …

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County opens special needs ballpark

Let’s all play ball


ORANGE PARK – Brian McElyea got a little teary-eyed as he spoke to county commissioners, Special Olympics volunteers and a host of area first responders Tuesday night at a ribbon cutting ceremony as he witnessed one of his daughter’s dreams come true.

“We were reminiscing on the way here about what we started here in 2001 with the purpose of leveling the playing field for children who were in non-mobile situations,” said McElyea, who with wife Jill and wheelchair-bound 23-year-old daughter Brienna, were on hand for a ceremony to add a special needs baseball field to the Moody Avenue Park. “Parks across Clay County were not able to accommodate wheelchairs. The Sunrise Rotary stepped up back then to create this park and now we are adding to it.”

First came the installment of playground equipment, swings and facilities able to be used with wheelchairs and adaptable to children with mobility restrictions. Brienna McElyea became a folk hero as Brienna’s Foundation supported the endeavor.

Both Clay County Commissioner Diane Hutchings and Clay County Special Olympics coordinator Ronna Smith concurred that the timing was right for the funding necessary to take the park one more step and create the baseball field.

“With everything that is going on with state funds; hurricanes, budgets, schools and all, special needs funding sometimes takes a back burner,” Smith said. “I think we just kind of hit it at the right time to get the funding from the state, get a donation from Walmart and get some grants.”

Walmart, just 100 yards west of the park, had donated a $1.2 million funding package plus the 15-acre parcel of its land to allow for expansion of the park. The county also received a $200,000 Department of Economic Opportunity grant, as well as a $430,000 Department of Environmental Protection grant to get things moving.

“The construction began in August of 2013 to celebrate the opening of the playground,” said Hutchings, who serves as vice chair of the county commission. “Today, we celebrate the opening of the baseball facility and the pavilion nearby that can be used for gatherings. A lot of people put their talents together to get this done.”

For Brienna McElyea, the extension of her first installment of Moody Avenue Park is just another step in her dream to allow families to play together regardless of their abilities.

“I never thought about the impact,” said McElyea, who though unable to speak, communicates through a computer module at her home and with her eyes. “We just wanted a place where everyone could play together.”

The McElyea family has been persistent in keeping the options open for expansion of parks in Clay County and Brienna sees the education system as her next vision.

“My next goal is to work on the educational systems, just like the playgrounds, and level the playing field there,” she said. “Especially college for handicapped people. I don’t think of it as a legacy. Just shedding light on issues and barriers as we come across them and then try to fix them.”

The baseball field, a first in Clay County, is complete with a fenced-in and lit field about half the size of a regulation baseball field, with fences behind home plate and in the outfield. Its surface is made of a rubberized material much like a college track.

Hutchings noted that the spectator facilities – bleachers, the pavilion and the rest room facilities are all made to encourage the community to join the park activities.

“We wanted to make the park enjoyable not just for children in wheelchairs, but our veterans can enjoy the park, families can spend a day here with plenty of activities around them and the facilities are well kept and designed with nearly every possible need for special needs people,” said Hutchings. “It truly is a project that has taken ideas from around the county to make it work.”

Smith has been instrumental in elevating Special Olympics to a major impact sport in Clay County and noted that the McElyeas have been right next to her all along.

‘It warms your heart to hear the McElyea story and their dedication to Brienna’s dreams,” Smith said. “They have had that vision for their daughter Brienna as much as for every other kid with a disability in Clay County. We can now see the possibilities for these athletes. It's about coming together as a community.”


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