Smithfield Herald

Chamber’s Citizens of the Year helped lead ‘miracle’ effort

The Smithfield-Selma Chamber of Commerce’s Citizens of the Year are Dwight Morris, left, and Chris Key.
The Smithfield-Selma Chamber of Commerce’s Citizens of the Year are Dwight Morris, left, and Chris Key. ndunn@newsobserver.com

To raise money for Johnston County’s first inclusion playground, Dwight Morris and Chris Key said, they had to believe in the project.

Their belief grew, the two said, as they met families who have children or adults with special needs. Key, a financial planner with four kids of his own, said he met a mom with two children, including one with special needs.

“She said: ‘We cannot go to a park. We have one that plays and another who is reminded they can’t,’ ” Key recalled.

“I love playing outside with my kids, and we play outside a lot and go to parks a lot,” Key added. “The thought of families not being able to play in a park doesn’t seem right to me.”

The Smithfield-Selma Chamber of Commerce recently honored Morris and Key’s belief, naming them Citizens of the Year for 2014.

The idea for an inclusion park hatched in 2007, shortly after Morris started as executive director of the Johnston County Partnership for Children. One of the partnership’s board members, Lisa Brogdon of Carolina Children’s Therapy, proposed the park, but the project never got off the ground during the recession.

In 2011, the Partnership had some drawings done for the playground, and the capital campaign and formal planning effort began a year later.

To try to get the most out of the fundraising campaign, the Partnership teamed up with the Miracle League of Johnston County, which was planning a ball field accessible to all children and adults. The Miracle League is a baseball league for children with physical, cognitive or emotional disabilities.

The two groups used a catchy name, the Partnership to Build a Miracle, throughout the fundraising effort, which included a road race, social-media campaigns and several local events. To date, the groups have raised close to $875,000, with $350,000 coming from an N.C. Parks and Recreation Trust Fund grant. Johnston County gave another $100,000 for the project. The fundraising effort has also received many in-kind donations.

Morris said raising money was tough early on, when a struggling economy limited how much many families could donate. But he said people got behind the idea and believed in it, just as he did.

“A park is one thing that is not quite as tangible to folks as a structure,” Morris said. “However, this park is not just about a designated area with a piece of equipment. This park has a lot about sensory experiences – sounds, smells and touch. It will be a learning experience in every piece of it.”

The Partnership to Build a Miracle broke ground on the project in November, and Key said the group hopes to seek construction bids in late February or early March. Building of the playground and ball field, near Smithfield Community Park, should start in the spring, continue through the summer and finish in the fall.

Morris, 61, of Clayton, and Key, 41, of the Cleveland community, were also recognized by the chamber for their efforts in promoting the First 2000 Days campaign. The campaign seeks to raise awareness about the importance of preschool education, and Morris and Key have agreed to serve as “champions” of the program and make presentations to groups throughout the county.

Key said 90 percent of the brain’s ability to learn occurs before age 5.

“If you don’t get it done, you can’t change that,” Key said. “You can’t change capacity.”

Morris said building an education is just like building a house: If you don’t have a foundation, you will have structural problems in the future.

“It impacts the whole scope of the community,” Morris said. “This is about their future, and it is about our future.”

For more information on the Partnership to Build a Miracle, go to www.partnershiptobuildamiracle.com. For more on the First 2000 Days campaign, go to http://first2000days.org/.

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