Dan Johnson & The Miracle Field

By: Benjamin Rachlin

When Dan Johnson arrived to UNCW's College of Health and Human Services in 1998, its modest recreation therapy program included only two faculty members and thirty-odd students. Today it offers a dozen courses to 150 students, more than ninety percent of whom pass the field's national exam. "It's been a huge growth," Johnson reflects-and Johnson himself has been at the center of it, both at UNCW and in the region.

Recreation therapy concerns the use of leisure time and activities to achieve health outcomes. Its curriculum thus appeals not only to students who intend to pursue certification but also to those studying nursing, exercise, and social work, and to faculty with a range of research interests. Trained recreation therapists might help a person adapt to circumstances from dementia to spinal cord injuries. "Are they able to go to the same house?" Johnson asks, to explain the questions his field aims to resolve. "Are they able to go to the same job? What's their transportation going to be like? How do they spend their recreation time now? Things just change in an instant."

A population in similar need is those with developmental disabilities, who rarely have opportunities to participate in their community. "Having a disability can make you very isolated," Johnson pointes out. Even the elderly can be "a relatively forgotten population," he continues, with few chances to safely enjoy the outdoors.

To help serve the needs of all these people, in 2008 Johnson founded ACCESS, a nonprofit organization whose acronym stands for Accessible Coastal Carolina Events, Sports, & Services. Today ACCESS enjoys a formal agreement with the City of Wilmington as well as a partnership with UNCW-the only such collaboration in the country-and runs baseball and soccer programs at its own Miracle Field, a specialized facility that opened in August 2012. The Field's surface is rubberized turf, which makes it ideal for wheelchairs, and is completely flat, with nothing at all a person might trip over. Lines and bases are both painted onto the turf, and a nearby playground, bathroom, and parking lot are all specialized and extremely accessible. "Once you enter the park, there are no issues with accessibility," Johnson praises. Even the water fountains offer three heights: standing-level, wheelchair-level, and dog-level, for service dogs.

So, what's next? Broadening the Field's possibilities even further. "How do we make it a place not for people with disabilities but for everybody?" Johnson asks: siblings, parents, even neighbors and church members. What about tennis, basketball, or hockey? He considers the sport his programs began with. "That's what the other three hundred Miracle Fields do. They play baseball. We're one of the very few places that want to do more than that. And we're the only place connected to a university."

To discover what more might be possible, Johnson plans to continue his collaboration with students and colleagues at UNCW, as well as in the Cape Fear region. And he plans to continue enjoying the work. "If you want to help people, and you want to do something interesting, it's a pretty good profession," he shares, of recreation therapy. "And if you like creating things for individuals and for programs, it's a great profession."