Natalie Keating, Julie’s Jungle

One Hopewell teen inspires a community-wide project to help kids with disabilities

Children playing on a playground is a sight we usually take for granted. Rarely do we pause to think about the kids who—because of a disability—can’t enjoy common play spaces. But 15-year-old Natalie Keating of Hopewell Junction was always keenly aware: Her older sister Julie had physical and cognitive disabilities and was often unable to join in on the fun at the local park. “I would run back and forth between her and the other kids because while we were playing she would sit on the side and just watch,” Keating says. “Her wheelchair couldn’t go over the woodchips, and even if it could there was nothing for her to do on the playground.”

Tragically, Julie passed away at 15 in 2007. Natalie, who was only 8 at the time, always wanted to honor her memory, and in 2012, she got the chance. Her teacher asked the class to write a letter to someone who could change the world. Most of the 12-year-olds penned notes to celebrities, but she contacted the town of East Fishkill and asked them to build a handicapped-accessible playground.

Janet McHugh, a former volunteer with the East Fishkill recreation committee, says Natalie’s letter came at just the right time: “We were thinking about building something like this, and when we got Natalie’s letter, we knew it was something we had to do.” McHugh founded and now serves as president of Julie’s Jungle, a nonprofit dedicated to the playground’s construction. The Keatings are also involved—Julie’s parents Jill and Tom serve on the board, and Natalie helped design the logo.

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Above left: Young sisters Julie and Natalie Keating; right: Julie

After three years of fundraising, the group hopes to break ground at the Lime Kiln Park in Hopewell Junction this summer. Phase one will open this fall, at which point the site will be usable, and a second phase is scheduled for summer 2016 completion. The park will feature a flat surface to accommodate wheelchairs and walkers; an enclosed swing for children with autism to escape noise and a wheelchair swing; a steel slide that won’t create static in the hearing appliances of kids with audio difficulties as plastic slides do; and interactive Braille and sign language panels. “I’m really excited about the full swing that fits a wheelchair,” says Natalie.

The main thing, says McHugh, is that even though every child won’t be able to use all the equipment, there will be something there for every child to play with. “We want it to be a place where all children, both able-bodied and ‘differently-able-bodied’ can play together,” she says.

Meet more of our local heroes here or nominate your own below.

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