In just a few years, children and adults who require special accommodations for outdoor play and leisure time will have access to an all-inclusive fishing pier, playground and adaptive ball field in Waukee.
The $2.5 million project is being developed in partnership with the Waukee Betterment Foundation, Miracle League and City of Waukee.
Matt Jermier, Waukee Parks and Recreation Director, said the department will oversee the operations and programming of these facilities. He anticipates The Miracle League of Waukee Ball Field and Play Area plus all-inclusive fishing pier will open by 2022 and that it will attract residents who live far beyond the city limits.
“We believe it will draw in families from around the Central Iowa region,” he explained.
The Miracle League baseball and softball field will have custom programs specifically for children and adults with cognitive and physical disabilities. It will also accommodate wheelchairs and other assistive devices.
According to the organization’s website, the program was created to be a space where athletes with special needs are treated similarly to other athletes. A buddy system is used during games. Each player is paired with an able-bodied peer, and “the result is a bond that cannot be described,” said Jermier.
Jermier hopes those connections are apparent on the accessible playground, as well. “The way many parks are set up makes it difficult for adults with disabilities to accompany their children or grandchildren,” he said. “Typically, they have to watch from the sidewalk. This playground will give them the chance to bring their family members and have fun right alongside them.”
The ballpark and playground will be located next to Waukee Northwest High School—the school district’s second high school—and within the 80-acre Waukee Youth Sports Complex and Park. Jermier said it will be strategically placed front and center in the complex and will include a customized rubber surface for the ball field and playground, sensory equipment, a picnic and shaded area, concession and restroom enhancements and more.
Liz Mount, a special education teacher at Walnut Hills Elementary, said the playground will be a truly special place for her students and their families. “Parents with kids with disabilities want to have the same accessibility as every other family and enjoy a day at the park,” she said. “That’s not always possible when the playground isn’t accommodating to all kids, and I love the idea of having one nearby. A structure that serves kids in wheelchairs, kids who can’t walk up steps, those who need sensory play and kids without disabilities who are still developing—it’s all necessary, because play is crucial for everyone,” she explained.
Paul Bird, a special education teacher with two sons—Max, a sophomore with special needs at Waukee High School (where Bird teaches), and Mitchell, a sixth grader at Waukee Middle School—said the playground is a game-changer. “It will level the playing field,” he said. “When Max and Mitchell were younger, this type of facility would have given them the opportunity to play together on the same piece of equipment, and I wouldn’t have had to worry about which child was where, knowing they could both navigate the playground independently or together. We’re already a growing community, and it just makes Waukee even more attractive.”
In addition to the ballpark and playground, there will be an adaptive fishing pier that looks out on a 14-acre pond stocked with a variety of fish. Jermier said the pond will be used as a recreational area for kayaking, non-motorized boating and other activities.
The design of the pier will include a feature that allows it to raise and lower depending on the water level. It will also have ample parking, guard rails and other features to allow residents with mobility issues to fish safely.
Jim Miller, president of the Waukee Betterment Foundation, a local non-profit that led fundraising efforts for the pergola at the Raccoon River Valley Trailhead is spearheading fundraising with fellow board members for the Miracle League of Waukee Ballpark and Play Area.
With more than 1,000 children with special needs in the Dallas County area, Miller said a significant need exists for an all-inclusive park. “Each Miracle League field has a capacity of about 250 children in the leagues,” he said. “Heartland AEA tells us there are 1,220 children currently enrolled in nearby schools with special needs of Level Two or Three. That is the profile of children who use a Miracle League field.”
“Other Miracle League fields tell us they get kids traveling in from rural Iowa, so this will easily operate at capacity,” he continued. “The city of West Des Moines does not intend to build a Miracle League field, so we will also see participants from that area.”
Mount has two students who participate in Miracle League and has found it to be just as beneficial for the families of the children as it is for the kids. “I believe the program has helped them build social skills and confidence. I think it’s also important for the families as they can be resources and support each other,” he explained.
Echoing Jermier’s hopes about the structures having a wide-reaching impact, Miller said, “This will be a destination for people to visit. Same with the fishing pier, it will draw people from a significant radius. The Miracle League games depend on volunteers, and we are hearing from many corporations that want to have their employees come out to help. All of that creates economic growth for local businesses.”
Miller said he is most excited about the opportunity the park will create for the western metropolitan area. “It is such a needed addition to the whole area, not just Waukee. It will be a regional facility that will be top-quality and quite unique. It will be something Dallas County can be very proud of,” he said.
Miller said fundraising efforts are just getting started, and they’re waiting to hear back from numerous potential donors. As of right now, the estimate for each amenity is $750,000 for the Miracle League ballpark and the all-inclusive fishing pier. The play area would cost around $1 million.
The Waukee Betterment Foundation is accepting donations at waukeebetterment.org.