The McKeel family was able to visit Richmond Hill for only a few hours this weekend, but the memory will last a lifetime.
Caleb and Erica McKeel and their two young daughters traveled from Texas to Richmond Hill for the grand opening of the Murphy McKeel Mile trail Saturday at DeVaul Henderson Recreation Park. The 1-mile trail is named for the McKeels’ first child, who died after a January 2012 car crash.
Erica McKeel’s voice quivered as she thanked the approximately 100 people who turned out for the ribbon cutting and walk along the trail, as well as all the other supporters who made it a reality.
“It’s a pretty emotional day for us,” McKeel said. “I really hope that it makes a difference for this community that has become a home away from home for us.”
McKeel secured a $100,000 Georgia Department of Natural Resources grant for the trail while she was working for the South Bryan County Recreation department. However, the McKeels moved from Bryan County prior to its construction.
The Army transferred Caleb to Kansas last year and then to Texas this month. The family arrived in Richmond Hill around dinnertime Friday and headed right back to Texas on Saturday afternoon following the Murphy McKeel Mile trail dedication ceremony.
“We absolutely wouldn’t have missed it,” Erica McKeel said. “To get to see friends and family, and friends who have become family, here in Richmond Hill come out and support this trail — both for the community and in honor of my son — has been pretty amazing.”
Along with the trail being a place for recreation, McKeel hopes it can serve a larger purpose. Every participant in Saturday’s walk received a T-shirt with the slogan, “One text or call could end it all,” warning of the dangers of distracted driving.
A driver who reportedly was on his phone turned into the path of McKeel’s car and caused a collision at Highway 144 and Capt. Matthew Freeman Drive on Jan. 5, 2012. She was seven months pregnant with her first child, to be named Murphy.
The little boy suffered brain damage and was delivered prematurely on Jan. 18. He clung to life for nearly a month before he died on Valentine’s Day.
“My son didn’t have to die,” McKeel said. “Next time you’re distracted while driving — whether it’s a cellphone, the radio, whatever it is — just remember that there’s a little boy who could’ve been here if someone had made a different choice.”
In addition to the DNR grant, the Bryan County Board of Commissioners provided funding for the trail. The commissioners also supported naming it for Murphy McKeel.
“Because Erica was instrumental in writing the grant to get the trail, I really think it’s appropriately named,” South Bryan County Recreation Director Kay Green said. “Couldn’t be better.”
The Murphy McKeel Mile connects to the Lake Trail and Green Creek Trail, giving Henderson Park nearly 3 miles of paved trails. Benches will be added along the new trail where people can sit and enjoy the scenery, according to Green.
“Because of this additional 1 mile, we now have a 5K (path) here at DeVaul Henderson Park,” she said. “So it’s a wonderful addition to our facilities here.”
More importantly, it upgrades Henderson Park’s compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act by connecting the park’s three trails, soccer and softball fields, concessions stands and restrooms. Prior to the Murphy McKeel Mile, access to the trail areas was difficult for people with disabilities.
The knowledge that her son would’ve had significant disabilities had he survived made McKeel more aware of the park’s shortcomings for people with special needs. After she returned to work with the recreation department following the crash, McKeel wrote and submitted the request for the DNR grant.
“This was a wonderful opportunity to put this in and serve members of this community who just didn’t have the option of getting out and using our park as much as they could have because of their mobility issues,” McKeel said.
“The really nice thing is, because we’ve added this new addition, it’s all ADA-friendly,” Green said. “The trail was there, but to get to it, there was nothing paved. There was nothing to get a wheelchair or a stroller or somebody who has walking disabilities to the walking trail.”
The entry fees from Saturday’s 1-mile walk will go to the recreation department’s Special-Needs Activities Program, or SNAP, according to Green. SNAP offers monthly activities for children with special needs and their families.
Lexi Brooks, 14, a rising seventh-grader at Richmond Hill Middle School, was among the SNAP participants who took part in Saturday’s walk. Her mother, Corey Brooks, sang SNAP’s praises for providing fun activities and helping Lexi make friends after the family moved to Richmond Hill from a community in Alabama that offered nothing like it.
“It’s not just for the kids; it’s for the parents, too. We’re all each other’s support group,” Brooks said. “We’re not just a group. We’re family to each other.”
To see a photo gallery from the Murphy McKeel Mile trail dedication, visit community.bryancountynews.com/gallery.