When Patrick and Destiny Hoerter began the process to adopt their biological nephew in 2013, they had big dreams for the baby’s future. From the moment he was born, Josiah (nicknamed JoJo) was a smiling, joyful child who brought happiness to the couple's lives.
Because the adoption crossed state lines, the paperwork took nearly a year. While the Hoerters waited, they grew to love the little boy who would one day be their legal son. But soon after JoJo came to live with the couple, they noticed delays in his development.
Destiny took JoJo—not yet a year old—to a pediatric neurologist, who recommended a variety of tests. Then came the day the Hoerters will never forget.
"The adoption papers arrived the same day as the test results," Patrick says. "JoJo was legally our son the same day we found out he had a problem."
JoJo had a genetic disorder called MECP2 duplication syndrome, a condition that caused his brain to be overactive and unable to tell his body what to do. At first, Patrick says, the couple thought: Okay, we can deal with this. Tell us what we need to do. Then the doctor told them JoJo wasn’t likely to survive past age 13.
JoJo's condition deteriorated rapidly. By age two, he was in a wheelchair. JoJo's siblings, then-5-year-old Jasmine, 3-year-old Isaiah, and 1-year-old Micah, were his constant companions. His favorite place to go was the playground, especially Dopeke Park. But except for the swings, he was unable to play on any of the equipment.
The Hoerters approached the Make-A-Wish Foundation to help create a wheelchair accessible playground in their own backyard to give JoJo an outdoor place to play with his siblings. But before JoJo's wish could be granted, he died, three months short of his third birthday.
The Make-A-Wish Foundation doesn't grant wishes posthumously, but Patrick and Destiny were determined to find a way to honor their child. Thanks to a $1 million grant from the B.A. & Esther Greenheck Foundation in Wausau, their dream is about to become a reality.
The Hoerters have launched a project to create a $2.4 million all-inclusive playground on an acre of land within Brockmeyer Park on Stettin Drive in Wausau. Something of a revolutionary concept, an all-inclusive playground is a fun, active place where children with physical or developmental challenges can play together with all other kids, without the barriers commonly experienced at traditional locations.
The key lies in landscaping and equipment design, which has been evolving for decades. A bigger push in recent years by advocates and designers has created a national movement for inclusive playgrounds.
Most parks are largely inaccessible to children with disabilities, Patrick says. Inclusive playgrounds are designed with features most people don’t give a thought to: Smooth rubber surfaces cushion falls. Swings have harnesses and high backs. Wide ramps allow wheelchair access to play equipment.
The idea is to create a playground that all children love. The one Patrick envisions, called JoJo's Jungle, is largely modeled after the Kids Are Special Here, or KASH, playground in Stevens Point, but significantly larger and with more features.
JoJo’s Jungle is impressive by any standard. Plans include a splash pad, a butterfly garden, two picnic areas and four zip lines, allowing children with and without disabilities to fly through the air.
Patrick, who works as an IT professional, created most of the park's vision himself, and had friends and professionals work on the design. Rettler Corp. in Stevens Point created the final plans that Patrick used when he approached the city's Parks and Recreation committee.
The response was enthusiastic. Alderman David Nutting, a longtime member of the committee, says he is excited about the park, which will be funded largely by private donations.
If all goes as planned, workers will break ground on the park on May 21, 2017. It would have been JoJo's fifth birthday.
Several local businesses and groups already have pledged toward the remaining $1.4 million. To donate, contact the Community Foundation of North Central Wisconsin, cfoncw.org or 715-845-9555. For more info on the project go to JoJosJungle.org.