Jack's Helping Hand seeks funds to build playground for kids with special needs

From left, Karen Borges, Russ Lovell and Paul Ready tour the site of the Jack Ready Imagination Park in Nipomo.
From left, Karen Borges, Russ Lovell and Paul Ready tour the site of the Jack Ready Imagination Park in Nipomo. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

As large tractors rumble in the background, Paul Ready points to a blueprint for his dream — a 32-acre park for special needs children in Nipomo — then looks out at the field where the park will be built.

“Immediately to the left of that flat area is going to be a playground with universally accessible equipment so children in a wheelchair, for instance, can get on a teeter totter with children without wheelchairs, and they can play together,” he says, now pointing to a stretch of soil recently graded by the tractors.

The first two phases of the park’s construction also will feature basketball and volleyball courts, picnic areas and a gazebo for entire families to hang out, he adds.

“The third phase is the equestrian area, where we anticipate having equestrian therapy,” he says, looking to the western end of the planned park. “Which is something that helped my son learn how to walk.”

While ground broke on the Jack Ready Imagination Park in April, when it will be completed depends on how soon money can be raised to fund it. But Jack’s Helping Hand — the nonprofit charitable organization, named after Ready’s late son, that is building the park — is already helping about 500 special needs children and their families a year.

Paul, an attorney, and Bridget Ready, a longtime teacher, created the organization after their 3-year-old son died in 2004.

“We did it to help a segment of the community that we recognized needed help because we’ve been in their shoes, in the battle with our son’s cancer,” said Ready. “And we recognize the little expenses that other people don’t even think twice about that destroy people financially when they’re in the fight for the lives of their children.”

The Readys’ own financial challenges began in 2001, when doctors discovered their son had a brain tumor. After Jack survived a 7-hour surgery, he was a special needs child who had to use a walker and hearing aids.

A little more than three years after the tumor was discovered, Jack passed away.

But even as they grieved the loss of Jack, the Readys, who have three other children, decided to help others.

“When he passed away, we had three or four families call up and ask if they could have the walker,” Ready said. “Because it was an expensive piece of equipment, and they didn’t have any insurance, they couldn’t afford it.”

The Readys donated the walker and their son’s hearing aids to those in need. Later, when a friend of another Ready son developed leg cancer, they decided to put on a barbecue fundraiser to raise money for a prosthetic leg.

“We had hoped to raise $25,000,” Ready said. “We ended up raising $75,000. We were able to buy Owen a leg, and then we had $25,000 (left over). And we said, ‘Hey, let’s see if any local pediatricians know of families we can help with this.”

From that sprung Jack’s Helping Hand.

The charity assists children with illnesses and disabilities and their families. Assistance might include purchasing high-tech wheelchairs, providing transportation to far-away hospitals and money for insurance deductibles. The organization also has a toy lending library, providing traditional and adaptive toys to special needs kids. And it offers therapeutic swimming and horse riding programs.

“They’ve turned Jack into an angel for all of us,” said Anna McCain, a Los Osos mother who has been helped multiple times by Jack’s Helping Hand.

Her son, Tassie, who was born with gastroesophageal reflux disease and a developmental disability called Angelman Syndrome, required six surgeries. He also had a sleep disorder.

After Anna and her husband Gareth contacted Jack’s Helping Hand, the organization helped pay for trips — some lasting days, others weeks — to a Los Angeles hospital. The organization also purchased a special $3,000 bed for the boy, now 5.

Before Tassie had the bed, he would wake up every three hours, his mother said, and require a meal to be prepared. Because his bed resembles an enclosed tent, he now sleeps soundly.

“A lot of special needs kids need a little private place,” McCain said. “I call it his sensory deprivation zone.”

When Karen Borges contacted Jack’s Helping Hand five years ago, her son Tyler was in dire need of medical help.

“My son had a tumor the size of a football in his abdomen,” said Borges, of Atascadero. “He was nine years old, and I needed to take him to New York to the best surgeon I could because they said he would die on the table if he had surgery in L.A. So I called Bridget, and she said, ‘What do you need?’”

The organization paid for their trip to New York so Tyler could receive treatment from a world-renowned surgeon at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.

Today, 14-year-old Tyler is cancer-free, and his mother is the executive director of Jack’s Helping Hand. She is the organization’s only paid employee, which strives to remain small in order to keep expenses down.

“I know if I give a dollar, most of that goes right to the families,” said Russ Lovell, who organizes an annual golfing fundraiser.

The organization hosts two large fundraisers per year, which brings in the bulk of its money. The rest comes mostly from individual donations.

The first fundraiser, a barbecue at Santa Margarita Ranch, has already sold out its July 12 event this summer. Last year it brought in roughly $225,000, Borges said.

The Sept. 5 golfing fundraiser, which will raise funds for the park, has raised $32,000 and $50,000 in its first two years and hopes to raise $80,000 this year.

According to the most recent tax forms on file with the state, the charity had just over $400,000 in revenue in 2012, and expenses were roughly $236,000.

The forms show the organization had assets of $2.6 million, including the value of the park land, estimated at $2.2 million. It had revenues of $327,400 in 2011 and $234,700 in 2010. The organization’s first operating budget was $200,000 in 2007 — when it helped just one child.

While fundraising efforts have been successful, Borges doesn’t want the figures to discourage future donors.

“There’s always more need than there is money,” she said, noting that they had just received a request to purchase a child’s leg braces for $2,800. “In the last two weeks, we had four children diagnosed with cancer in this county.”

While the Santa Margarita barbecue funds assistance programs, the golf fundraiser will help pay for the park, which will cost between $5 million and 6 million.

The county has dedicated $500,000 to the park, but the first phase alone will cost around $1.7 million. The two other phases will cost between $1 million and $2 million each.

McCain said her family would make the trip to Nipomo if there was a park for Tassie. Often, she said, other children are afraid to play with her son, so a park with other special needs children would be more hospitable.

“He wants to play with other kids more than anything else in the world,” McCain said.

The park will be built on land donated by Jack’s uncle and aunt, Nick and Kathleen Tompkins, situated on a bluff above farmland. On a fogless day, visitors will have views of the Guadalupe Dunes and the Pacific Ocean.

While volunteers have performed the archeological and biological studies needed, designed the playground equipment, and flattened the ground, the three phases of construction have yet to begin.

When it’s finished, it will appeal to a large segment of the population that Ready says is often ignored.

“It’s gonna get built, one way or another,” Ready said. “I don’t know when we’re going to be done, but the commitment is made to the community.”