BERKELEY HEIGHTS, NJ — Berkeley Heights is getting a $25,470 “Level the Playing Field” grant from Union County, the Union County Board of Chosen Freeholders announced Thursday.
The new grant program was designed to help every Union County municipality provide inclusive playgrounds to children with disabilities as part of Freeholder Chairman Sergio Granados’s 2018 Union County HEART initiative for community outreach and advocacy, according to press release from the county.
All 21 municipalities in the county received part of a total of $500,000 in Level the Playing Field awards, funded through the Union County Open Space, Recreation and Historic Preservation Trust Fund:
Berkeley Heights $25,470.00
New Providence $25,470.00
Roselle Park $25,470.00
Scotch Plains $25,470.00
Winfield Park $25,470.00
“Every child should be able to enjoy a playground in or near their neighborhood, and participate in enriching sensory experiences with friends, family and neighbors from all walks of life,” Granados said in press release. Granados launched Level the Playing Field in 2017 while serving as vice chairman. “We would like this program to become a statewide model for counties and local governments, showing how we can work together and help all families make healthy outdoor play a lifetime habit.”
“Once all of the projects are completed, Union County will be the first county in New Jersey to have an inclusive playground for every municipality within its borders,” added Granados. “Based on our research, we may also be the first county in the U.S. with inclusive playgrounds for every municipality.”
“Through Level the Playing Field, the Freeholder Board continues to deliver on the Trust Fund’s promise of expanding and improving recreational opportunities for all county residents,” said Freeholder Alexander Mirabella, Chairman of the Trust Fund, in the release.“The benefits of inclusive playgrounds ripple out to include families and caregivers, helping to forge closer bonds within the whole community.”
Letters to all 21 municipalities announcing the availability of Level the Playing Field funding were mailed last fall, and all 21 responded, according to the county.
Many Union County parks already feature playgrounds with inclusive features, the county said. In 2016 the county opened its first fully accessible playground, located in Mattano Park in Elizabeth.
In another recent project focusing on people with disabilities, last fall the Freeholder Board broke ground on Union County’s first all-inclusive Sensory Trial. The new 0.3 mile loop in the Watchung Reservation includes a Braille trail with rope guides and nature-themed play structures, designed to be enjoyed by all ages and abilities.
Other Union County programs for people with disabilities include the Sensory Friendly Theatre series sponsored by the Freeholder Board at the Union County Performing Arts Center, and programs at the County’s Ulrich Swimming Pool, Watchung Stables and Trailside Nature and Science Center.
The Freeholder Board also provides funding for special events such as annual fishing derbies, an ice skating social, summer carnival and barn dance, as well as programs for popular activities including golf, karate, yoga and volleyball.
UC HEART stands for “Empowering, Advocating for, Reaching and Teaching others.” In addition to the new Level the Playing field grant program, UC HEART includes creation of the first Office for People with Special Needs in New Jersey.
The new office is charged with improving recreational and social opportunities, reaching out to community groups and other stakeholders and identifying new opportunities for engaging people with special needs.
More information about the Office for People with Special Needs is available on the County website, ucnj.org.