By Randy Arrington
STANLEY — Bill Lavin’s vision was “born out of tragedy.”
“We try to make triumph out of tragedy,” he told the Stanley Council on Feb. 9. “We want Officer Winum to be remembered here.”
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.”
In total, Where Angels Play has built 57 playgrounds across the U.S., as well as Canada, Puerto Rico and Rwanda.
Lavin told members of the Stanley Council earlier this month that Where Angels Play has plans to build 10 playgrounds before the end of the year. Their next community build will be held May 9-14 about four hours away in Malvern, Penn.
And within the next 18 months to two years, the non-profit hopes to build a playground in Stanley.
“When I heard that story, it was like somebody from above said, ‘You have to build this playground here’,” Lavin said during his Feb. 9 presentation.
The New Jersey philanthropist heard the story from fellow retired firefighter Patrick Sanford, who moved to the Stanley area a couple of years ago from Charleston, S.C. And no, it’s not simply the tragic story of how Stanley Police Officer Dominic “Nick” Winum 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 said.
The founder of Where Angels Play says that no taxpayer money will be used to construct the playground proposed in Stanley to honor Officer Winum. Jersey Mike’s sub shops are a big corporate sponsor of the organization, along with several police associations. A local fundraising effort will be launched to help complete the project.
Once 70 percent of the fundraising goal is met, a date will be set for construction, which could be as early as spring or summer of 2023. 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.
Once construction starts, it takes only a few days for a large group of volunteers — around 100 folks or so known as the “Angels Army” — to complete the project. Typically, with some prep work ahead of time, the project starts on a Wednesday with a ribbon cutting on Saturday.
“You will have cops and firefighters from all over the country coming to get involved,” Lavin said. “We will have moms and dads from Sandy Hook that will come here.”
Prior to construction, designers and contractors will meet with Kara to incorporate “personal touches” in the 50×60 plot so that the playground reflects the personality of the popular police officer. When Lavin told the story of a Sandy Hook father who said the playground they created in memory of his son gave him a place to go and remember him on his birthday — it really hit home with Winum’s widow.
“Nick had such a heart for kids…my oldest daughter Aubrey was talking about how we should do something for kids [in Nick’s memory]…not long after Bill [Lavin] got in touch with me,” Kara told council members as her emotions began to swell. “[Nick] held Willa [his granddaughter], but she will never get to know him. When there’s another [grandchild] on the way…they won’t get to know Nick…but for them to have a place to come and get to know him would be huge.”
Lavin said that granddaughter Willa will be one of the “foremen” on the construction site of the playground, “with a hard hat and tool belt, and she’ll get to boss us around.”
The Stanley Council unanimously adopted a resolution in support of the playground project. While a specific site has not been chosen, Lavin and Town Manager Terry Pettit visited a potential site for the playground the day after the Feb. 9 council meeting.
The Town plans to hold a special ceremony at 3 p.m. this Saturday, Feb. 26 to mark the one-year anniversary of Winum’s shooting. A number of elected officials, including Governor Glenn Youngkin, have been invited to the event, along with local ministers, a choir and members of Winum’s family from New York. Local residents are asked to display blue lights all this week in remembrance.
For more information about the Where Angels Play Foundation,