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Miracle League breaks ground on baseball field

:Miracle League athletes Aislin Gates, Gabby Crews and Camron Rodgers greet Miracle League mascot Homer at Tuesday's groundbreaking at City Pond Park. All three play in the Rockdale County Miracle League: Gates plays for the Pirates and Crews and Rodgers are Marlins players. - Staff Photos: Sue Ann Kuhn-Smith

:Miracle League athletes Aislin Gates, Gabby Crews and Camron Rodgers greet Miracle League mascot Homer at Tuesday's groundbreaking at City Pond Park. All three play in the Rockdale County Miracle League: Gates plays for the Pirates and Crews and Rodgers are Marlins players. - Staff Photos: Sue Ann Kuhn-Smith

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Tyler Lewellen, a short-stop with the Pirates in Rockdale County's Miracle League, and Jake Branan, who will be a first-time Miracle League athlete, came out to celebrate. Lynda Reagan with Newton County Special Olympics said she considers the athletes to be "angels in the outfield," referencing a Disney children's film. "It's so special to see all the kids being able to play baseball."

COVINGTON - Miracles really can happen. On Tuesday afternoon, a miracle four years in the making occurred, when ground finally broke on the Miracle League baseball field for children with special needs, the culmination of years of planning, persistence and hard work by local volunteers, the Recreation Commission, officials and the community at large.

The smiling faces of the children who will use the field and their parents let those involved know their efforts have been worth it.

Jake Branan, age 8, said he can't wait to play. "I want to dig," he said. He called Tuesday's ground breaking - so termed even though no dirt was turned on the turf at City Pond Park - "a great experience."

His father Chris Branan grew up playing Little League and eventually coaching in Newton County. He said he's thrilled that his son can now have that same chance.

"He loves baseball," Branan said. "For him to have this opportunity is out of this world."

Tangi Forman-Steward's son Morgan, 4, is used to cheering on his brother and sister while they play sports, but, "Now he can participate," she said. "It means a lot to our family," she added.

Morgan has spinal muscular atrophy, a form of muscular dystropy. Asked if he was looking forward to getting out on the baseball field, his eyes brightened, a big grin took over his tiny face and he nodded his head yes.

Recreation Commission Director Tommy Hailey said the community has been behind the project since the first public meeting took place in August 2008. He thanked all those involved and remembered a special community member who he said would have wanted to be there, the late B.C. Crowell.

Crowell was a founding member of the Recreation Commission and a volunteer with Special Olympics.

"Part of my heart is filled with joy and part of it is filled with sadness because my long-time friend B.C. Crowell could not be with us," Hailey said, adding that, "I know he would say, 'Well done Newton County, I'm proud of all of you.'"

Hailey said one of the best decisions he's ever made was asking the Recreation Commission to hire Tamara Richardson as a consultant for the non-profit that is raising funds for the project.

Richardson said there are 2,704 children with mental and physical disabilities in the Newton County School System. "That's why we're here and why we've worked so hard to finish and build this field," she said.

Diane Alford, executive director of the national Miracle League, founded in neighboring Rockdale County, also attended the event, which drew a crowd of about 200.

"What you have accomplished here in the last four years is what we're so gratefully watching across the country," she said, noting that there are 250 Miracle Leagues in America, Puerto Rico, Canada and Australia. "Newton County knows how to make miracles happen."

Construction on the field is slated to begin in mid-September and if all goes according to plan, the field could be in use by fall 2013.

The Georgia Department of Corrections will construct the field, and the use of inmate labor is expected to save between $500,000 and $750,000.

The Miracle League project will cost approximately $2.5 million, with $1.5 million being paid for through SPLOST revenues. Since the BOC decided not to bond any projects on this SPLOST, Newton Federal Bank offered to loan the money so construction could begin sooner, rather than wait for funds to trickle in over the six-year life of the SPLOST.

More than $225,000 has been raised through private donations, and Miracle League of Newton County has applied for a $100,000 grant from the National Park Service's Land and Water Conservation Fund to be used to purchase and lay rubberized turf on the field, as well as a $40,000 grant from CVS for playground equipment. The Atlanta Braves also have a grant program that could assist with costs once the field is opened and the Miracle League program in operation, Richardson said.

The existing football field at City Pond Park will be converted to an artificial turf baseball field for children with special needs. The project also includes the conversion of an existing baseball field for use by various age groups in the Recreation Commission's baseball program. Those fields will be artificial turf, which will allow tournaments to be held to bring in revenues for the Recreation Commission and Miracle League.