Peri Nearon, Carleton Montgomery, Sarah Adelman at Atsion Recreation Area

From left to right: Peri L. Nearon, Division of Disability Services Executive Director; Carleton Montgomery, Pinelands Preservation Alliance Executive Director; Sarah Adelman, NJ Department of Human Services Commissioner.

NJ Departments of Human Services and Environmental Protection Tour Recreational Area in Pinelands to Spotlight Making Nature Accessible to All

Impact of Inclusive Healthy Communities Program Grantee Highlighted

NJ Department of Human Services
October 27, 2023

New Jersey Department of Human Services Commissioner Sarah Adelman and the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection today highlighted the implementation of Inclusive Healthy Communities (IHC) grant funding through a tour and hike at the Atsion Recreation Area, which is part of Wharton State Forest in the heart of the Pinelands National Reserve.

Commissioner Adelman and DEP Assistant Commissioner of State Parks, Forests and Historic Sites John Cecil were accompanied by advocates for individuals with disabilities and organizations granted funding through IHC, including the Pinelands Preservation Alliance (PPA).

“It is wonderful to see public and private organizations partner to create equitable access to natural areas for New Jerseyans with disabilities as we witnessed at the Atsion Recreation Area,” Commissioner Adelman said. “Our goal is always to help our communities become more fully accessible to the wide array of individuals who we serve, and this is the latest example of those efforts. We thank the Department of Environmental Protection for their partnership and commitment to help us break down barriers to ensure individuals with disabilities can access the natural wonders of our state.”

“DEP is committed to expanding accessible and inclusive outdoor recreation opportunities that support the health and well-being of communities throughout New Jersey. The State Park Service this past summer proudly unveiled its first inclusive playgrounds for each region of the state park system and announced upgrades for other playgrounds,” Environmental Protection Commissioner Shawn M. LaTourette said. “At Atsion Recreation Area, we installed an inclusive playground, and used input from the Pinelands Preservation Alliance’s Access Nature Forum to make accessibility improvements to the Red Trail and received their donation of beach wheelchairs so that everyone, regardless of ability, can experience the rejuvenating effects of being in nature.”

Accessibility improvements made possible by the IHC funding at the Atsion Recreation Area include: beach wheelchairs; trail-adapted wheelchairs; guided hikes suitable for individuals with or without disabilities on the accessible trails of Wharton State Forest, including the Red Trail at Atsion Recreation Area; and staff training for the Pinelands Adventures program. The wheelchairs are available at no cost and are available at the park.

“Having access to nature is a fundamental component of a healthy and happy life, and individuals with disabilities deserve equitable access to these benefits,” Deputy Commissioner for Aging and Disability Services Kaylee McGuire said. “The accessibility improvements made at the Atsion Recreation Area ensure that individuals with disabilities can also enjoy the many physical, mental and emotional benefits that nature offers.”

Peri L. Nearon (far right), Division of Disability Services Executive Director and founder of the IHC grant program, joins fellow hikers at the start of an accessible trail at Atsion Recreation Area in the Pinelands. 

“The progress made at the Atsion Recreation Area is the beginning of substantial and sustainable change,” Division of Disability Services Executive Director Peri Nearon said. “Making nature more accessible and inclusive is a systems change, and well worth the effort for all residents of New Jersey. The changes being made ensure that spaces in nature are more accessible for everyone. The IHC program is making changes like this possible throughout our state.”

“The Inclusive Healthy Communities initiative woke us up to the fact that our outdoor recreation programs and all our communications about recreation in the Pinelands excluded people with disabilities. Now we are collaborating with a diverse network of partners to make sure people can enjoy the natural places they help protect, regardless of disability status,” Pinelands Preservation Alliance Executive Director Carleton Montgomery said. “For us and our partners, Inclusive Healthy Communities sparked a fundamental change in our thinking and our practices, which we believe is making New Jersey a better and a fairer place to live and explore.”

“The mission of the Bloustein School is to create just, socially inclusive, environmentally sustainable, and healthy local, national and global communities. Supporting the Inclusive Healthy Communities and collaborating with our partners to expand access to nature and the outdoors for people with disabilities is a pressing opportunity to advance disability justice in New Jersey and the Bloustein School is excited to be part of this effort,” Rutgers University Edward J. Bloustein School Environmental Analysis and Communications Group Executive Director Jeanne Herb said.

As part of a partnership between DEP’s Coastal Management Program and Human Services’ Division of Disability Services’ IHC Grant Program, the Pinelands Preservation Alliance was among three grantees that received an extra $30,000 in funding to help communities implement initiatives that increase inclusive recreational access to coastal resources for individuals with disabilities.

Pinelands Preservation Alliance is a nonprofit organization in Southern Jersey that works to make nature more accessible for individuals with disabilities. Since 2021, they have been awarded $280,000 in IHC grant funding to make these improvements. The Family Resource Network and Allies in Caring also received additional funds to increase recreational opportunities for persons with disabilities in the state’s coastal locations.

First launched in January 2021, the IHC grant program works to support communities and ensure that the voices and needs of people with disabilities are included in healthy community planning.

The IHC program, administered in partnership with the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy of Rutgers University, aims to promote change at the local level by addressing pre-existing physical, environmental, social and economic challenges that prevent individuals with disabilities from having full access to community life that support health and well-being.


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