TOMS RIVER, NJ -- "Is this Heaven?"
It's a valid question standing amid the ball field, basketball hoops, boccie court, pavilion, mini golf course, and state-of-the-art special-needs playground that comprise the RWJBarnabas Health Field of Dreams. But if you glanced at co-founder Christian Kane, the Kevin Costner of this family sports saga, he'd shake his head with a smile.
"It's New Jersey."
Kane, a high school math teacher, grew up in Kew Gardens, Queens, and has raised six children with his wife Mary in the Little League stronghold of Toms River. But a fateful moment 10 years ago irrevocably changed the lives of the Kanes and ensured their son Gavin would never step up to bat in a typical youth baseball game.
"July 12, 2012, I was in a car accident with my then 19-month-old Gavin," Christian Kane says. "We were hit from behind by a fully loaded beer truck. The impact broke my car seat in half. The back of my forehead struck Gavin in the middle of his forehead."
When Kane opened up the rear door of the car and didn't hear Gavin crying, "I knew we were in trouble," he says.
Gavin barely survived, sustaining a traumatic brain injury, and life would never be the same for him or his loved ones, who now took on additional roles as caretakers.
"Gavin lost the ability to walk and talk," Christian Kane says. "It was now going to be a fight for him to do things that we take for granted."
Zachary Grace, site coordinator for RWJBH Field of Dreams, understands Gavin's plight better than most. Like Gavin, Grace's life was forever altered by a medical event completely out of his control.
"When I could play sports, it was the best thing in the world, it's all I wanted to do," Grace says. "When I was about 8 years old, I was diagnosed with brain cancer."
Aggressive surgeries helped Grace recover, but robbed him of his coordination and fine motor skills.
"After that, I couldn't really play sports again. It was terrible," he says. "You have to relearn how to walk, and how to talk, and how to run; years of therapy to relearn all that."
It's a journey Gavin Kane continues to this day, training long, hard hours every week in physical therapy. Gavin, who communicates verbally through a tablet, is building strength and coordination during grueling workouts, and making strides toward walking.
About five years ago, Christian Kane noticed the absence of adequate playgrounds for special-needs families. After building an accessible playground outside his home, the juxtaposition with typical park playgrounds, which only had "the big red swing in the corner" for special-needs families, became crystal clear.
It was then that Christian, Toms River's own Kevin Costner, first heard the voice.
"That was really the call for Mary and I to say, OK, this is not how he should live and not how people with a special-needs child or even adult should have to experience life," he says.
So Christian Kane established a nonprofit in 2017 with a modest goal.
"We were just going to build a baseball field, a small little playground, and two bathrooms," he says. "$250,000, that was it."
But as he traveled around giving speeches and soliciting donations, "I didn't see a 6-year-old boy," Kane says. "I saw people who were in their 50s and 60s and 70s, and they had no place to go. And that's when the wheels changed in a heartbeat. We had to build it the right way the first time, not a baseball field and a playground, a special-needs complex unlike anything in the country."
In the half-decade since the idea was seeded, the obstacle of pandemic-related construction delays proved more feature than bug; it gave Christian Kane more time to expand his fundraising efforts with local businesses, which in turn provided the chance for Toms River and the surrounding communities to coalesce around the complex and support it financially.
Like the Iowa ballfield built for "Shoeless" Joe Jackson, Toms River's Field of Dreams expanded in scope and budget. What was once a dream of a quarter-million-dollar baseball field has become a $3.5 million facility with dozens of dynamic, accessible elements exclusively for special-needs families.
"The special-needs people are excited, but its really the caretakers," Christian Kane says. "They're the ones who are crying, hugging you, squeezing you, and thanking you for giving them a place to go."
Since opening in April, more than 1,500 special-needs families have registered. To do so, families with a special-needs member can visit the RWJBH Field of Dreams website, fill out a form, provide a doctors note, and then gain free, unfettered access to the park, which can be accessed during business hours with a smartphone.
In the movie "Field of Dreams," the voice tells Kevin Costner's character, "If you build it, he will come." It's a sentiment that isn't lost on Jillian Kane, Christians daughter, Gavin's sister, and the event director for the complex.
"This was just supposed to be a baseball field, and it's turned into so much more than that," Jillian Kane says. "Now that it's built, I can't wait to see people come from all over the world."
The Toms River Field of Dreams story is about community and love and inclusion. But, like the movie it's named for, it's ultimately the story of a father, a son, and a baseball field. In this case, instead of a son building a field for his father, a father built one for his son, and for people like him who deserve a seat in the dugout.
"When I was in high school, I wanted nothing more than to be on a field like that," Zachary Grace says, his voice quavering, "It's amazing. Every kid deserves a chance to be able to play."
To register, donate, or learn more, visit RWJBH Field of Dreams.