in a hotel pool in 2006, Gordon Hartmans daughter, Morgan, approached
some children. Unable to speak, she tapped a ball at them eager to
play, but they backed away cautiously.
The moment both saddened Hartman and made him determined to find a
place where people like Morgan, who have cognitive or physical disabilities,
can revel to their hearts content.
Morgans smile, her hugs, her ability to give so much of
herself was her way of inspiring her father to take a different approach
to the second half of his life, Hartman said, while speaking
at a school graduation in 2011.
When he discovered that the play-land he imagined for his daughter
didnt exist, Hartman and his wife, Maggie, who had already formed
the Gordon Hartman Family Foundation, became determined to create
Morgans Wonderland. The San Antonio, Texas based family started
the process in 2007.
We didnt go to experts, we went to the grassroots, the
people who have special needs, the caregivers, the parents, the uncles,
the grandparents, Hartman recalls. We asked them: If we
were to build something like this, what would you want to see? What
are your needs?
Hundreds of people came to these meetings and we listened to
them hour after hour. Then he worked more closely with about
10 stakeholders on different aspects of the project.
The project grew exponentially until Morgans Wonderland became
a 25-acre accessible amusement park for children and adults with special
cognitive and physical needs. The park, which is also in San Antonio,
opened in 2010, has a carousel, a music garden, off-road vehicles,
a miniature 1930s style train, a sand circle play area and traditional
and adaptive swings with the capacity to twirl wheelchairs.
What was going to be a small, maybe a $5 million to $10 million
park, Hartman says, turned into a $36 million park.
The facility has received visitors from all 50 states and 35 countries.
Though its design and engineering put the needs of those with disabilities
first, Morgans Wonderland was built to include everybody, facilitating
a communal comfort zone where those with and without disabilities
can hang out together. Places like Morgans Wonderland are helping
to break the ice.
Hartman, who made his fortune in real estate, knew that his daughter
was luckier than many because the family could provide for her every
need. Morgan never went without a doctors care, a therapist,
or medication. In consideration of the economic challenges so many
parents of children with disabilities face, one of Hartmans
missions for the park was that there be no financial barriers to entry.
We let everyone who has special needs in for free, he
says. Its a policy of ours, a mission. I ran into someone
who comes to the park every two to three weeks from Houston. Its
a three to four hour drive. They come, they have two children with
special needs who get in free and they can spend a whole weekend here
and pay 20 bucks. This place really meets their kids needs.
The most visitors theyve had in the park at one time was about
4,500. But 1,500 is a more comfortable number, Hartman finds, because
people with disabilities may need longer to get on or off of a ride.
Visitors are very, very accommodating; there is no, Gosh,
its taking too long. Everyone is patient, willing to wait
and understands, because theres a culture there. We have children
who come to our park on ventilators, who have two nurses with them.
Before Hartman turned his focus to Morgans Wonderland and other
philanthropic ventures, he had his hands full with career No.1.
At 19, he sold a landscape company hed own since he was 12,
bought a home and started a home construction business. Along with
that, he owned a land development business, a mortgage title company
and an insurance enterprise. After 22 years, however, he sold them
all in 2006, about six months before the real estate crash.
Today Hartman helps nonprofits chart their course; contributes to
groups that help those with disabilities; and builds medical facilities
and schools with the intention of having a long-term, positive effect
on those with disabilities.
Hartman says the financial weight of his projects hasnt fallen
squarely on his family or the foundations shoulders.
Some of this money has been mine, but Ive also gone to
the community for a lot of this money, as well. This is about a community.
You have to have a nucleus somewhere. The park also keeps about
50 people working; roughly a third of them have disabilities.
Hartman also built a 75-acre soccer facility next door to Morgans
Wonderland. He owns the pro soccer team the San Antonio Scorpions
who play there and invests 100 percent of the soccer facilitys
net profits from games, concerts and concessions into the amusement
So instead of putting money away into an endowment, weve
brought something else to San Antonio, in this case pro soccer, which
was so much desired in this market, he says.
Ive had people come and visit, owners of pro teams, other
entities around the world who have come to look at Morgans Wonderland
in an effort to replicate it. The family foundation is putting together
a group called Wonderland Development Group to build Wonderlands in
other places. They also intend to coach others who want to build
a similar park to serve their communities.
Hartman recently met with a wealthy businessman who was interested
in the model. He thinks its perfect. The business
man told Hartman: I dont need any money. This is
about wanting to give back. Hes got his staff working
on this already.
Hartman built a school next door to Morgans Wonderland, called
the Monarch Academy. Its for children up to young adults, capping
at age 24. The kids learn whatever is grade appropriate, while the
young adults pick up job readiness skills.
Its a 3.5-to-1 ratio of students to teacher, so its
very focused, which is expensive to do. However, my foundation has
a scholarship program that helps cuts the cost in half for people
who qualify for the school.
Although Hartman retired from his real estate career at 41, he finds
hes busier than ever with this new phase of his life, very often
working 60 hour weeks. Little did I know my daughter would change
so many lives, he reflects, and that the first life she
would change would be mine.
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