WALKER — As city officials prepare to host a star-studded fundraiser to build a baseball field for children with special needs, the mayor hopes a partnership with the Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation will drive the project home.
Some 80 children with mental and physical disabilities already participate in the Walker recreation department’s Challengers Division, Mayor Rick Ramsey said. That number, which includes children from other parishes, could easily double once the city’s plans for a specially designed ballfield at Sidney Hutchinson Park become a reality, he said.
Ramsey said the field could be completed as early as next year.
So far, the city has raised nearly $90,000 in pledges and cash donations for the project. Ramsey expects another $60,000 will be raised in January at the city’s Nashville Unplugged event featuring country music stars like Billy Dean and Diamond Rio’s Marty Roe, as well as local bands The Gillis Silo and Clifton Brown and the Rusty Bucket Band.
That would give the city a little over a third of the funding needed to complete the $422,000 conceptual design the Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation put together in collaboration with the mayor’s office.
Although the city has not yet formalized a partnership agreement with the foundation, officials on both sides appear eager to work together on the project once Walker reaches the halfway point in its fundraising.
At that point, the foundation could make a contribution and help the city raise the rest of the money using the Cal Ripken brand, said Bobby McCaffrey, assistant director of the foundation’s Youth Development Park Initiative.
Ramsey said the ballfield is sorely needed.
“I don’t think you can put a dollar figure on what it means to the parent of a child who is without the normal routine of a child without a disability,” Ramsey said. “For a short period of time, everybody on that field is normal. It’s more than just the number of kids. It’s what it means to the city and other kids working with them and seeing how hard they work.”
The design calls for the ballfield to be located just north of the playground, in the northeastern corner of the park where Corbin Avenue meets Ball Park Road.
The field would back up to an existing small pavilion and include a poured rubber surface over a concrete base.
“It has a complete drainage system, so it could rain 3 inches and the kids could be out there in 20 minutes,” McCaffrey said.
The field surface also would have lower maintenance costs, requiring only that the city remove any trash that might accumulate and occasionally “run a weedblower across it,” McCaffrey said. “It pays for itself after a while, given you don’t have to mow and grow it.”
The ballfield design also includes 50-foot base lines, a 24-foot backstop with netting, vinyl-coated, chain-link fencing, and bleachers situated on wide concrete sidewalks that connect to the park’s walking trail and a nearby parking lot.
The mayor hopes one day to upgrade the playground and its equipment as well, to make it more accessible for children with physical disabilities.
The Challengers Field project fits in with the Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation’s mission of providing character-building, baseball- and softball-themed programs to at-risk or underserved youth, McCaffrey said.
The organization has partnered with communities in more than a dozen states to design and help build ballparks, both with regular turf and rubberized adaptive field surfaces for children with special needs.
“Along the way, we realized that children with disabilities were being left behind too,” McCaffrey said. “They were confined to walkers or wheelchairs and often couldn’t play when the fields were wet from rain, and they got held back.”
Fifty Cal Ripken parks have been built to date, including at least eight adaptive fields, according to the foundation’s 2014 report.
The Walker project would be the foundation’s first field in Louisiana, making it an appealing opportunity for the organization, McCaffrey said.
Follow Heidi R. Kinchen on Twitter, @HeidiRKinchen, and call her at (225) 336-6981.