The sun over Lake Sara seemed just a little bit brighter Saturday morning as kids faces lit up while they explored a new public park area.

Children and parents gathered to mark the official grand opening and ribbon cutting for the first phase of Lake Sara Beach Park. Eight-year-old Judah Newswander of Effingham was given the honor of cutting the ribbon while 8-year-old Ethan Salamor of Tulsa, Oklahoma, held on to the end.

A new disc golf course and two playground areas are part of phase one of a multiphase project spearheaded by the Lake Sara Forever Founation to redevelop the 30-acre Lake Sara Pearson Peninsula Park.

Janet Kennedy and Cheryl Habing, Effingham Water Authority Parks and Recreation Committee members, were on hand to help with the grand opening.

Kennedy and husband Bob Kennedy, along with Tom Ryan, helped with the erosion control rock around the lake. That project transitioned to bringing back Lake Sara Pearson Peninsula Park.

“We wanted to change this area into something it used to be,” Janet Kennedy said. “It was very busy with a lot of people and things to do up here. There was always something going on.”

In the 1960s and ‘70s, the area included a miniature golf course, a train ride and depot, along with a concession area.

“Everything is ADA accessible and also includes an ADA fishing area,” Kennedy said about the new play areas. “We are trying to make this accessible for everyone.”

The new play area addition is split into two playgrounds: one for 2-5 years olds and another for ages 5-12 closer to the water with a pirate ship theme and a miniature cannon statue guarding the ship that overlooks Lake Sara.

Kennedy said they worked with Farnsworth Consulting to put together the master plan for the park. The actual play area was built by Swingler Construction.

“Everything has either a water or nautical theme,” Kennedy said.

Christina Brand visited Lake Sara Beach Park from Joliet. With her was young Aubrey Musial, who enjoyed riding a dolphin in the playground for 2-5-year-olds.

“We’re down here for a vacation,” Brand said. “This is a cute little park. It’s adorable. It’s really a nice park.”

Lori Portz lives north of the Lake Sara Dam and has watched the progress of the park. She brought her three grandchildren — Daisy, Lillian and Jordy Rodgers — to the park Saturday morning.

“I’m excited for the kids,” Portz said. “It’s so well built and so many things to enjoy.”

Crossroots Church Lead Pastor Bryan Newswander brought three of his five children — Judah, 8; Pearl, 5; and Lewis, 3 — to the park.

“It’s beautiful. This is one of the most beautiful areas of the Effingham region,” Newswander said. “We are really thankful for the work that has been done and it is accessible for all kids.

“We have lived in Effingham a little bit over two years. We have a great set of parks and Effingham is a great place to raise a family,” he said.

Friday evening during a Lake Sara Forever donor event Ryan was presented a special street sign. Janet Kennedy said the Effingham Water Authority decided to name the street that leads to the playground area “Tom Ryan Way” in his honor. Ryan is a member of the EWA Parks and Recreation Committee and member of the Lake Sara Forever Foundation Board.

“He has pushed so hard to make this project happen,” Kennedy said. “He was the one who put it all together.”

“He had a vision,” Habing said.

Kennedy noted the overall project consists of five phases.

“We’re now going to start raising money for phase two,” she said.

The second phase will include adult exercise activities such as pickleball courts and bocce ball, along with plans to include a lighthouse built close to the playground areas that can be used by both adults and children.

Habing said phase two would also include a beach volleyball court and a walking track.

“This has been seven years in the making,” Habing said.

“We are really happy with the way it turned out so far,” Janet Kennedy said.

Charles Mills can be reached at charles.mills@effinghamdailynews.com or by phone at 217-347-7151 ext. 126.

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Charles Mills is reporter and videographer for the Effingham Daily News. A 1983 graduate of Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, he worked as senior video editor for a Nashville television station. He is a native of Vandalia.