"It's just been incredible -- the support we've gotten from individual families and from corporations, from kids in classrooms making bracelets," he said. "We raised $1 million in less than three years. It just doesn't stop, and it's been an inspiring project for us to be involved with. To know we can accomplish this says a lot about the people involved in the community and how much they were behind us."
The field -- complete with two dugouts and a left-field scoreboard -- resembles a FieldTurf surface, but its rubberized granules were laid down and smoothed by a hand trowel. Some of the contractors donated their time and expertise, which Hand found both inspiring and typical of the project.
Hand also said that one family donated $150,000 to the Miracle Field on the condition that they remain anonymous, and that hundreds of people were moved to donate their time and energy. Art Heaton, a fellow member of the Miracle League board, said he was proud to be part of the process.
"The outpouring in the community has been incredible," said Heaton, who coaches in the Miracle League and has worked with the Special Olympics for 15 years. "My daughter plays on this field. She's a Girl Scout, and all the Girl Scouts are helping. My son's helping kids play, and the little guys are helping with bake sales. People hear Miracle League and it's like a mantra now. People say, 'How can I help? What can I do? Can I plant shrubbery? Can I help the little guys play on the weekends?' It's amazing and it makes your heart feel really good. It makes you believe in people again."
In that respect, this branch of the Miracle League is repaying a favor born 12 years ago and hundreds of miles away. The original concept for the Miracle League was born in 2000 in Conyers, Ga., and it began to grow exponentially over the next decade despite an unstable economy.
Diane Alford, the national executive director of the Miracle League, said it never ceases to amaze her how universal the concept has become. There are now 250 Miracle Leagues across the country, and there's another two in Canada and one in Australia. Alford said that there are 12 more fields to be dedicated this spring, and there appear to be another 10-12 ready to open this fall.
And at the heart of that phenomenon, she said, is the unerring generosity of the human spirit.
"At the end of the day, our success is because of communities like Northampton that have recognized a need and a passion," said Alford. "They've said, 'We want to be a part of not just bringing something special to our community, but we want to be a part of this bigger picture.' When I get back home this weekend, we'll have hundreds of phone calls just because of this opening. There will be someone visiting here that lives in Texas and has a grandson with a disability, and they'll ask if we have a league in Texas. It just keeps growing from word of mouth and from the media."
The Northampton field was celebrated with a parade and pomp and circumstance on Sunday, as the Miracle League got under way with a ribbon-cutting and some ceremonial first pitches. And then the games began, allowing the children onto the field they've long awaited.
Perhaps the best part of the facility, said Hand, is that it's housed at a thriving park with other fields nearby. Northampton Municipal Park also houses soccer fields and basketball courts to go with a hockey rink and other baseball fields. They're all close to the Miracle Field, though, which allows the special-needs athletes to be a part of the community and to be close to their friends.
"Now, when a special-needs athlete wants to come to his game and his friend plays on the other diamond, they can come to the park together," said Hand. "What used to happen is that special-needs kids used to get the grass and dirt fields on Sunday afternoons after every other game is over and nobody else is around. Now, we're front and center. This is the greatest thing for them.
"And the kids that are not special-needs athletes, it's amazing that they treat this field with reverence. They come up and they look at it, but they don't step on it. They say, 'Wow, it's really cool.' And we say, 'You can't ride your bikes on it,' and they say, 'No, I'm not going to ride my bike there.' They probably wouldn't ride their bike at Citizens Bank Park, either, but they'd want to get close and see it."
The games on this field, richly attended on Sunday, came back to the heart of the matter. Here you could see children of all ages and abilities playing together for the sheer love of sport, and you could see teenagers happy to volunteer and be a part of something bigger than themselves.
Hand said that the Miracle League has had to actually turn down volunteers from local schools and churches because there hasn't been enough work, but that will change now that the field is in service. The games will be played and the kids will need help, and there's a community ready to lend a hand.
"Today is sort of a new chapter for us," said Hand. "We're turning it over to the kids now. We still need to raise money, but now we're finally going to see the fruits of what we've done and the kids are finally going to get out there. We've talked about it for three years and they've heard about it. The kids have been to the ice-cream socials and they've been to the beef-and-beers [fundraisers]. More than anything, they've wanted to see this day come, and I think that's really what makes today so special."