Revolutions in Recreation Therapy

In 1998, when Dan Johnson joined UNCW's College of Health and Human Services, the recreation therapy program included two faculty members and about 30 students. Now, in 2015, it offers a dozen courses to 150 students, more than 90 percent of who pass the field's national exam.

"It's been a huge growth," reflects Johnson, who's been instrumental in growing the program throughout the region.

Recreation therapy involves the use of leisure time and activity to augment healthful living. Recreation therapists help people adapt to altered circumstances, from dementia to spinal cord injuries, or navigate existing challenges faced by specific populations, such as the developmentally disabled or the elderly.

"Having a disability can make you very isolated," says Johnson. "And the elderly can be a relatively forgotten participation." Recreation therapy helps people participate in the community and safely enjoy the outdoors. danjohnson

In 2008, Johnson founded the nonprofit organization ACCESS, or Accessible Coastal Carolina Events, Sports and Services. Now in 2015, 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. Miracle Field's flat, rubberized turf makes it ideal for wheelchairs and smooth navigation-both lines and bases are painted onto the turf, so there's nothing to trip over.

"Once you enter the park, there are no issues with accessibility," says Johnson. The playground, bathroom and parking lot are nearby, and the water fountains offer three heights: standing-level, wheelchair-level and dog-level for service dogs.

Now, Johnson hopes to expand the field's capabilities, making it a place for everybody: siblings, parents, even neighbors and church members. Tennis, basketball and hockey-Johnson wants more than just baseball.

"That's what the other 300 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."

And through exploring the possibilities, Johnson collaborates with students and colleagues at UNCW, as well as throughout the Cape Fear region. Recreation therapy expands its own sense of community too.

"If you want to help people, and you want to do something interesting, it's a pretty good profession," he says. "And if you like creating things for individuals and for programs, it's a great profession."