New Jersey firefighters descend on Hawksbill Park to build Winum playground in three days

Stanley News is sponsored by: Town Of Stanley

Stanley playground build in memory of Police Officer Dominic "Nick" Winum
A crew of about 60 volunteers, made up of mostly retired New Jersey firefighters, descended on Hawksbill Park Wednesday morning for a three-day build of a playground in memory of fallen police officer Dominic "Nick" Winum.

Dedication, ribbon cutting 11 a.m. Saturday, Hawksbill Park

By Randy Arrington

STANLEY, May 31 — Around 7 a.m. Wednesday morning, the “Angels Army” descended down upon Hawksbill Park some 60 strong, ready to start their 62nd project…this one for a fallen police officer.

“They came in like firemen going to put out a fire,” said Christie Baker, a Stanley volunteer who helped make breakfast available.

“You can tell they’ve done it a time or two,” Stanley Parks and Rec Director Terri Beer said.

“I said it was like the Amish raising a barn,” Baker added.

By midday various work stations have been established, parts have been laid out, structures are already going up and concrete is being mixed and poured. The new multi-station playground in recognition of the life, service and memory of Officer Dominic “Nick” Winum is well underway…and it’s just a little after lunch on Day 1.

“It’s amazing,” Beers said, spinning around to take in all the activity, “and they definitely know what task they need to be doing…as soon as they got here, they went right to what they needed to be doing. It’s awesome to see it coming together.”

On Feb. 9, 2022, Bill Levin introduced his non-profit group, the Where Angels Play Foundation, to the Stanley Council. The New Jersey philanthropist had heard the story of local tragedy from fellow retired firefighter Patrick Sanford, who moved to the Stanley area a couple of years ago from Charleston, S.C. And no, it wasn’t simply the tragic story of how the Stanley police officer was fatally shot multiple times during what was supposed to be a routine traffic stop on Feb. 26, 2021 — but rather the story of compassion shown by Nick’s widow, Kara, for the family of her husband’s assailant who was later killed by law enforcement. While mourning her own loss, Kara sent food to the family of Dakota G. Richards, noting that his family must be hurting too.

“If any story needs to be told, it’s the story of the Winum family…in the face of such tragedy…she chose compassion and forgiveness,” Lavin told the council.

Now, some 15 months later, Levin and his “Angels Army” are delivering on their promise to build a playground in Stanley to honor Officer Winum and his family.

In the wake of the Sandy Hook school shooting in Newtown, Conn., Lavin and fellow New Jersey firefighters built 26 playgrounds — one to honor each of the 20 first grade students and six educators killed by a gunman on Dec. 14, 2012. At the time, Lavin served as the president of the New Jersey State Firefighters’ Mutual Benevolent Association, which had previously built playgrounds in Mississippi in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Two months prior to the school shooting at Sandy Hook, Hurricane Sandy wrecked areas of New Jersey and the Atlantic coast. New Jersey firefighters built the 26 playgrounds in communities affected by Hurricane Sandy, but each one held special traits to reflect the personality of an individual lost in the Newtown, Conn. tragedy.

“Each one is very specific to that individual that we honor…we talk with folks and utilize their favorite colors or incorporate their special interests somehow into the construction of each playground,” Lavin said. “We celebrate the lives of angels that lift us.”

With the launch of the Where Angels Play Foundation, its first initiative — “The Sandy Ground Project” — was completed in just 18 months. Afterwards, Newtown families involved in the project wanted to “pay it forward” and continue the group’s mission “to create joyful places to play. To provide hope, recovery, and a return to family values in the wake of senseless violence and tragedy.”

While many of the volunteers at Hawksbill Park this week are retired New Jersey firefighters, some have traveled from New York, Florida and South Carolina. One man made a special trip from Tennessee to be a part of the Stanley project. Carlos Soto has lived in the Volunteer State for the past three years trying to move on. That’s also a big reason why he keeps coming to these playground builds.

“It’s more of a healing for me,” Carlos said. “Talking to the families helps me as well…Bill told me, ‘it’s easier for you to talk to the family than me because you have been through it’.”

Carlos’ daughter, Victoria “Vicki” Soto, was a teacher at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012. On that dreadful December day in Newtown, Conn., Vicki saved the lives of 17 students from a mad gunman…but she was unable to save her own.

“It’s hard…when your mind stops, it brings you to a bad place,” Carlos said. “So you have to get out and keep your mind busy…it’s time for me to keep moving and help someone else, so I come out and help build playgrounds…and this group has become like a family.”

Carlos serves as the cook, among other duties. He cooked up three boxes of burgers and 10 pounds of hot dogs today for lunch. He likes staying busy and contributing. Just two weeks after completing the pink and green playground decorated with flamingos for Vickie — the foundation’s fifth project — he was back out volunteering again on another playground. Now, he’s been at it more than a decade…and while he never grows tired of the calling, he does grow weary of the need.

“Recently, when they had the shootings in Tennessee, I was interviewed by a lady from NBC…I told her, this is going to happen here,” Carlos said of the small town where he resides. “I hate to say this, but until a politician’s family is killed [in a mass shooting situation like this], nothing will be done. The people selling guns want to sell more guns…It’s all about money, it’s not about life…and that’s a shame.

“How many more innocent people will be killed before something is done?” he asked. “It’s been almost 11 years since Sandy Hook, and the law is still the same.”

Carlos spent time talking with Officer Winum’s widow Kara. While he did not directly share any specifics from the conversation, it appeared from his comments that it may have been mutually beneficial for both. For now, his focus is on a playground based in blue, to reflect Officer Winum’s service to the community.

The new playground adds to the growing list of amenities being added to Stanley parks, especially at Hawksbill Park. Officer Winum’s playground will sit adjacent to the main building by the pool and the volleyball court. A new dog park is nearing completion just across the creek (just waiting for electrical service to be hooked up to operate fountains), a new splash pad was added to the pool last year, and future plans call potentially for campsites along the creek and possibly even a miniature golf course in the years to come.

The Where Angels Play Foundation has built playgrounds all across the U.S., as well as Canada, Puerto Rico and Rwanda — and none of those playgrounds were built with taxpayer funds. All projects are funded through public donations and corporate contributions. Jersey Mike’s sub shops are a big corporate sponsor of the organization, along with several police associations. Lavin said that while the playgrounds they build could normally cost in the neighborhood of $500,000, the foundation is able to keep costs in the $150,000 to $200,000 range.

The dedication of Officer Winum’s playground is set for 11 a.m. Saturday, June 3 at Hawksbill Park. Levin feels most of the heavy work will be done on the project by the end of the day Thursday. The finishing touches will be added on Friday, and the group will be relaxing by the time Carlos starts cooking steaks Friday evening.

“They are already telling me…I want mine medium rare, I want mine medium well…when you are cooking that many steaks…they will get what they get,” he says with a smile.

Carlos believes Vicki sends him a message during every playground build…something that lets him know he’s right where he’s supposed to be.

“A lot of times I get that from her…I’m where she wants me to be at, and that’s what keeps me going,” he says. “When something ugly happened, something beautiful came out of it…When we are gone, kids will still be playing on these playgrounds.”

The Vicki Soto Memorial Fund, Inc. helps teachers get access to reading materials by providing free books for students. To learn more about Miss Soto’s literacy legacy, email or write to Live, Laugh, Love, 2420 Main Street, #9, Stratford, CT 06615.



Community invited to get involved in building playground honoring fallen police officer

‘Where Angels Play’ plans to build Stanley playground in memory of Officer Winum

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