Little boy who yearned to play like other kids inspires a second South Jersey 'all-access' playground | Kevin Riordan

The Cummings family — Jim (right), 72, his wife Lynn, 70, and their son-in-law Joe Nasto, 42 — have diligently worked to raise money and support to build playgrounds for children with disabilities. Their first all-access Jake’s Place playground is in Cherry Hill; construction of a second Jake’s Place is expected to start in Delran in 2018.

Jacob Cummings-Nasto was born with a condition akin to having only half a heart.

But so full of love was “Baby Jake” that he continues — 10 years after his death — to inspire and help others.

About $1 million in donations, private grants, and public funds have been obtained to build, or lay the groundwork for, two all-access “Jake’s Place” playgrounds in South Jersey. The first opened off Brace Road in Cherry Hill in 2011 and construction of the second, on Hartford Road in Delran, is expected to begin this year.

The Cherry Hill facility was second on USA Today’s list of best playgrounds in 2015 and has been described as a major regional attraction by Camden County officials. Hundreds of families visit Jake’s Place after school and on weekends; the playground is for daytime use only, but is free and open year-round to all.

“Jake would be thrilled,” says his dad, Joe Nasto, who’s president of the nonprofit Build Jake’s Place board. His wife, Kate, is a member as well; the couple live in Pennsauken.

“For someone who only lived 27 months,” Nasto adds, “Jake has an incredible legacy.”

Camera icon FAMILY PHOTO
Jake Cummings-Nasto died after surgery to try to correct a congenital heart condition in 2007. But his smile and his spirit live on in South Jersey’s “Jake’s Place” playgrounds.

I meet the 42-year-old videographer at the Pennsauken home of his in-laws, Jim and Lynn Cummings.

Married for nearly 50 years, the couple are the parents of three and grandparents of two (“plus Jake,” as they both like to say). Committed Catholics, professional fund-raisers, and longtime civic leaders, they are passionate about the family’s cause.

“People are taken with what they see at Jake’s Place. It breaks down all barriers of discrimination,” Lynn says. “It’s a place where all children — regardless of race, regardless of faith, regardless of ability … can play. And there can be harmony and laughter.”

Says Jim, “We always say, ‘Nobody cries at Jake’s Place — until it’s time to go home.’”

The faith, expertise, and enthusiasm of those involved notwithstanding, it has not been easy for Build Jake’s Place to raise money.

A facility the size and scope of the Cherry Hill Jake’s Place can cost as much as $600,000 to build. Equipment, layout, paving surfaces, and other features are designed to be accessible, usable, and enjoyable for children with special physical and or developmental needs, including youngsters on the autism spectrum.

“It’s not that people are against these playgrounds,” Lynn says. “They’re just not important enough.”

Jim also notes that well-intentioned people often assume the Americans With Disabilities Act covers access issues, when in fact being able to get to a playground in, say, a wheelchair is quite different from being able to actually use it.

“People in wheelchairs don’t get to experience a rocking motion like on our Sway Fun” equipment, says Arthur Aston, 36, who was born with spina bifida and serves as executive director of Build Jake’s Place.

“To see someone in a wheelchair experience for the first time the simple swaying back and forth that we take for granted is just wonderful,” the Collingswood resident adds. “That’s the miracle.”

While growing up in Chesilhurst, using crutches to get around, Aston found it difficult to use standard playgrounds.

Fortunately, public awareness of the need for all-access playgrounds is on the rise: On Dec. 18, the New Jersey Senate unanimously approved legislation dubbed “Jake’s law” that will require counties accepting state Green Acres grants to construct at least one such facility. It will be up to each county to decide the size, design, and location of its all-access playground.

Camera icon JIM,CUMMINGS
Lynn Cummings casts a vote on behalf of New Jersey State Sen. James Beach (right) as the chamber voted unanimously Dec. 18 to approve legislation to encourage counties statewide to build “all-access” playgrounds. The measure is nicknamed “Jake’s Law” in memory of Cummings’ grandson, Jake Cummings-Nasto.

The state Assembly unanimously approved the measure in the summer of 2017; Gov. Christie’s office has contacted the family to schedule a signing ceremony before the governor leaves office Jan. 16.

“These playgrounds need to be in every county,” says Sen. James Beach (D., Camden), the bill’s sponsor.

“Just go by Jake’s Place in Cherry Hill on any weekend and you will see a magical place … where children of all backgrounds, ages, and physical abilities are playing together, and Lynn and Jim’s vision of a [memorial] for their precious grandson Jake is in full effect,” Beach adds.

Build Jake’s Place must raise a remaining $100,000 to complete the Delran project, and has high hopes for a “Magic of Play Gala” event set for March 22. The Burlington County freeholders are providing a $250,000 grant, the township is contributing $200,000 from grant moneys, and Delran High School students have raised $5,000 as well, says Lynn.

The new Jake’s Place will complement a community park and recreation complex that has long been in development, Township Council President Gary Catrambone says.

“We are incredibly excited to see this happen, and I think the residents are, too,” he says. “We want that park to be the center of the community.”

Jake was born with  hypoplastic left heart syndrome — in which one chamber is underdeveloped and does not function properly — and underwent multiple cardiac surgeries.

The boy was small for his age, but very sociable. And he enjoyed being brought to playgrounds at Cooper River and other South Jersey parks, even if he couldn’t readily play in them.

“Jake would hear the wonderful, joyous noise that happens at a playground, and it made him happy.” says Jim Cummings.

“His smile was never bigger than when he was at a playground,” his dad says.

And thanks to Jake, kids like him will soon have more places to smile in South Jersey.