10:19 AM, Jun 24, 2012

Trumps aid planned East Fishkill park, named for late sister

Written by Nina Schutzman Poughkeepsie Journal

HOPEWELL JUNCTION — When Natalie Keating’s English class at Van Wyck Junior High School was given a letter-writing assignment, many of her classmates chose to write to movie stars or famous singers in Hollywood.

The letter Keating wrote had a shorter distance to travel — East Fishkill’s Town Hall — but ended up having a bigger impact than she or her family could have imagined when she wrote it.

“I’d like to help others,” said Keating, 12. “And I knew exactly how. I wanted a playground to be built for special needs children in memory of my sister Julie, who had special needs too.”

Julie Keating was 15 at the time of her death, almost five years ago. Now, Natalie Keating’s dream is on its way to becoming a reality.

Building costs of Julie’s Jungle are an estimated $350,000, with fundraising still in the “infant stages.” At least 30 percent of the costs are attributed to the ground cover, which will be “rubberized” so children in wheelchairs can move around with less effort.

Other plans include a sensory garden, a glider that a wheelchair will fit in, and play panels with Braille writing.

Their first major donation was $25,000 from Trump National Golf Club on Friday.

The $25,000 will be used for “start-up money to reach out” to people who may want to help or donate money to the nonprofit. But they may not have to reach far.

“I am very happy to be part of a project for children with special needs. It often goes overlooked, and it is my privilege and honor with my son Eric to donate $25,000 to Julie’s Jungle at Lime Kiln Park, Inc.,” Donald J. Trump said in a press release.

Trump named Dan Scavino, a Hopewell Junction resident and Trump Golf Club manager, as a driving force behind the donation.

But it’s taken a lot of planning and dedication on the part of Hopewell Junction residents to get to this point.

When Janet McHugh, a former member of the East Fishkill Town Recreation Board, saw Natalie’s letter in January, she was struck by it.

“I’d been talking to (Town Supervisor) John Hickman about building a playground here for children with special needs right before we got Natalie’s letter,” McHugh said. “We had no firm plans yet, though. And suddenly, there’s this letter.”

Clare Moran, the clerk for East Fishkill’s assessor’s office, also remembers the moment when they first heard of the Keating family.

“Hearing her story touched our hearts,” Moran said.

Natalie’s letter described a girl: her sister, Julie. A girl who communicated through basic sign language and made friends everywhere — especially at the park. A girl who couldn’t walk but still loved the swings. Most of all, the letter described the struggles that disabled children face at the playground, and how a handicapped-accessible playground could change that.

“My mom used to bring us to the playground,” Natalie said. “I could play on anything I wanted; Julie’s wheelchair couldn’t get over the woodchips under the swings.”

Jill Keating, Julie and Natalie’s mother, remembers all too well the hardships she faced.

“There was really nothing that she could do on the playgrounds,” Jill said. “We tried to find a special needs playground in the area but there were none.”

Jill and her husband, Thomas Sr., knew Natalie was writing to the Town of East Fishkill but couldn’t believe the response.

“I got a reply about a week later,” Natalie said. “They said that they wanted to talk to me and my family about building the playground, and they wanted to dedicate it to my sister.”

After reaching out to the Keating family, the real work for McHugh and Moran began. The family, including Natalie’s brothers Thomas Jr., 17, and Dean, 15, were invited to a town board meeting so that Natalie could share her dream, and planning for the project began.

“Everyone involved in Julie’s Jungle is a volunteer,” McHugh said. “We wanted to build it without taxpayer money, so we formed a nonprofit organization.”

Hickman recommended using the town-owned Lime Kiln Recreation Facility for a site location, and the group decided to model it after a handicapped-accessible playground in Connecticut.

When it comes to breaking ground, McHugh said, “We have to be well on the way to our monetary goal before we break ground. … We want 18 months but it will probably be three years. The sooner the better.”