Joey Moore, age 5, is facing his 21st operation next month for spina bifida, a neurological birth defect in which the spinal column does not completely close, leaving his lower body paralyzed.
On his first visit this week to the new, completely inclusive Oxford Memorial Park Playground in Chester County, Joey started smiling the minute he guided his wheelchair onto the big aluminum platform of the adaptive swing.
"I want to come here every day of my life!" the youngster shouted.
Paul Matthews, an Oxford Borough councilman who spearheaded the community drive to fund and build the $150,000 playground, fastened the wheelchair swing's locking chains, started Joey in motion with a gentle push, then watched Joey do the rest.
Joey's mom, Ashley, said that when she found out about the inclusive playground from Matthews' Facebook posts, "I said to Joey, 'Look at this! Look at this!' We were very excited."
As Joey swung alongside kids in a variety of other swings, he smiled and studied Matthews' full gray beard until he had to ask, "What's with that big beard? You kind of look like Santa Claus."
"Ho ho ho!" Matthews said.
"Ho ho ho!" Joey responded.
Joey and Matthews exchanged high fives. Then Joey left the swing and wheeled around the facility, guiding his wheelchair smoothly over the rubberized safety surface to a network of ramps leading to an electronic keyboard and drum panels, workable plastic gears, a steering wheel that tilts a table of balls into holes, a squirrel trail puzzle in Braille and in English that reads, "Help Sparky find all six prizes on the way home," and an alphabet panel.
Matthews rejoined Joey at "Eli's Repair Shop," a playhouse storefront dedicated to his motorcycle-loving son Eli, who was diagnosed in 2007 with acute lymphoblastic leukemia at age 6 and fought the disease without complaint until he passed away in January 2011.
Matthews has dedicated his life to supporting childhood cancer research through his nonprofit, fundraising Eli Seth Matthews Leukemia Foundation. He dreamed of building a playground where all children can play together, regardless of abilities and disabilities.
Matthews said he was seeing his dream fulfilled by the joy on Joey's face during the adaptive wheelchair swing ride and afterwards, when Joey wheeled around the safety surface, exchanging high fives and fist bumps with a diverse group of children.
In its first few days since opening, the inclusive playground has been a magnet for children of all abilities.
Annmarie Henry from the nearby small town of Lincoln University watched her son Adam, 21 months, run on the ramps until the piano and drum panels stopped him in his tracks.
"My husband, Bill, is a music teacher," Henry said, "and Adam has a child-size drum kit at home. When he points to our piano, my husband plays it and I get out the maracas, and Adam bangs on the drums. He's fascinated with drums. The creative components in this playground are great."
The new playground replaced the park's old-style one, thanks to a prodigious volunteer effort by the entire community — from R. Wood Excavating and Rudy Allen, owner of Soap Bucket Skincare & Candles, doing the excavation and site preparation to Barbara Ross, a 96-year-old retired dairy farmer, who startled Matthews when she suddenly donated $50,000.
"There are a lot of children who are unable to be on a regular playground," she said. "I heard talking about making this playground and I got this bug in my head and decided I would do it. I am up in years. I don't need the money like I used to. I'm glad I was able to do this."
Raymond Fischer, retired superintendent of the Oxford Area School District, presided over the Oxford Rotary Foundation, which raised the playground funding.
"Everybody in this community just came together for this," said Betsy Brantner, recently retired borough manager, whose 15 years of service included the playground project. "I don't think there's anything, and I'm getting a little choked up here, like watching the faces of children who were not able to play because of their challenges and now can get on swings and play with everyone else and feel included. It's hard to say God wasn't involved with all this."
Watching Joey wheel around the playground, offering a smile and a fist-bump to every kid he met, his mom said, "Joey's been like that since his first smile. He's never turned it off. He started kindergarten at Avon Grove Charter and made friends with everybody. They call him 'the Mayor.'
Joey was born with myelomeningocele, the most severe form of spina bifida, his mother said.
"Joey's going for his 21st surgery next month," she said, "so while the weather's like this, I wanted to get him out in the fresh air as much as possible. He's outgrown the bucket swings. Before this opened, the nearest inclusive playground was in Wilmington, too far to drive."
She watched her son try all the play stations before returning to his favorite, the wheelchair-accessible swing.
"I want to cry thinking about this," she said. "It's too much."