By Randy Arrington
STANLEY, June 3 — A small, rural community nestled between the Blue Ridge and Massanutten mountains was shaken to its core on Feb. 26, 2021. In the wake of great tragedy, the Town of Stanley came together, displaying their blue lights and remaining “Stanley Strong” after the fatal shooting of Officer Dominic “Nick” Winum.
On Saturday morning, the community came together again to commemorate the ultimate sacrifice of Officer Winum — this time in the form of a forever gift from a group of retired New Jersey firefighters and other volunteers from across the country.
“It’s hard to look at good things out of a tragedy, but here we found one,” Town Manager Terry Pettit told a crowd of more than 100 at Hawksbill Park. “We’re all one big family. In this community, there will always be hope; there will always be pride.”
On this day, that pride is bolstered by the dedication of a playground constructed in less than three days by a group of 60-plus volunteers brought to the Page Valley by the Where Angels Play Foundation. Bill Levin, the non-profit’s founder, remarked about the warm welcome they had received, relationships forged in emotional moments, and the ongoing ribbing about cultural differences that provided some levity.
“I can’t say enough about the support we’ve received. We’ve never had fireworks dedicated to us like last night, and they have fed us unbelievably. We thought we were giving you a gift, and we got one in return,” Levin said of the local community, noting support from various businesses, stores and restaurants to Luray Caverns. “We’re very different, but we’re really the same…The one debate we love is ‘Do I talk funny, or does Terry talk funny?”
The alleged differences between Northerners and Southerners is not based in fact, according to Stanley Police Chief Ryan Dean, who often noted jokingly how Officer Winum — originally from New York — considered himself a “Northern redneck” and felt at home in the mountains of Virginia.
“We made a lot of good friends this week,” Chief Dean said with a grin. “What you’ve heard about Northerners is not true.”
Levin presented a brief history of the Foundation, which finds its roots going back to Sept. 11, 2001 when New Jersey Firefighters reached out to help their “brothers across the river” in the wake of terrorist attacks. They continued their volunteer efforts to help those in tragedy through hurricanes Katrina and Sandy. The first 26 playground projects were then prompted by the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn. on Dec. 14, 2012. Each playground was specifically tailored to honor the memory of the 20 first-grade students and six adults killed by the gunman.
Saturday marked the dedication of the 62nd playground built by the “Angels Army” of volunteers that came to the Page Valley from New York, Florida, South Carolina, Tennessee, and of course, New Jersey.
Retired police officer Mike Freeman of Summit, NY sang the national anthem, followed by Stanley Police Captain Aaron Cubbage offering a rendition of “American the Beautiful.” Following the Pledge of Allegiance, Levin offered a moment of silence.
“This is for all of your angels,” he said. “Angels from Sandy Hook, and to all angels we’ve dedicated in the past, and the angel we dedicate her today.”
While similar playgrounds could cost as much as $500,000, Where Angels Play can leverage costs through volunteer labor and negotiating better prices with suppliers to get the average cost down to between $150,000 to $200,000. All funds are donated, from corporate sponsorships like Jersey Mike’s Subs, to local contributions. In Stanley, about $50,000 was raised in just three months.
“It shows what our little community can do,” Chief Dean told the crowd. “Thank you all and I hope your children, and your grandchildren enjoy the playground.”
The black and blue uniforms of police officers, the black-striped grey slacks and brimmed hats of state troopers, and the brown ensemble of deputies were spread throughout the crowd. Patrick “Pat” Colligan, state president of the New Jersey State Policeman’s Benevolent Association, representing its 33,000 members, came to Hawksbill Park on Saturday to not only dedicate the new playground, but to honor a fallen brother.
“Although I never met Nick Winum, we share a brotherhood,” said Colligan, before borrowing a few words from another officer, “…our patches may be different colors, but they are cut from the same cloth…[those in law enforcement] are the only ones who will drive more than a 1,000 miles to a funeral for someone they’ve never met.”
Levin then recognized 5-year-old Griffin Lanier, who stole the show. Not only did the kindergarten student raise an amazing $3,000 toward the construction of the memorial playground, but he also stole the hearts of those in attendance when he gave a short speech.
“Thank you for everybody that raised money for the playground,” Griffin said in a tone of someone much older, yet with a voice still indicating his youth. “I’m so glad I got to help.”
For several of the regulars among the “Angels Army”, they shared how their visit to the Page Valley was special. Among the crowd are the mother and father of “hero” DJ Simons, the focus of a previous build, who traveled from Tampa, Fla. to be here for the Stanley dedication.
Carlos Soto traveled from Tennessee to help cook for the volunteers at Hawksbill Park this week. Carlos is the father of Victoria “Vicki” Soto — the “hero teacher” who saved 19 students at Sandy Hook Elementary School, before losing her own life to the gunman.
“This is very special day for me today…this one touched me very hard,” Carlos said during Saturday’s dedication in Stanley. Carlos has participated in the Foundation’s playground builds for the past decade — ever since No. 5 was completed to honor Vicki, featuring a pink and green theme, accented with flamingos.
“Seeing what we did and what came of it…while Bill was talking today I was over there, crying…I never do that,” Carlos said. “I enjoyed this town a lot. This is a special place…this is a beautiful playground. We will be long gone and children will still be enjoying it.”
Levin talked about the Foundation’s mission to turn “tragedy into triumph,” and for a decade after the initial “Sandy Hook Ground Project” they have done just that with dozens of projects all across the U.S., as well as Canada, Puerto Rico and Rwanda.
There was something special that brought them to Stanley, Virginia.
“When I heard that story, it was like somebody from above said, ‘You have to build this playground here’,” Levin said during a presentation to the Stanley Council on Feb. 9, 2022.
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 Officer Winum was fatally shot multiple times during what was supposed to be a routine traffic stop — 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,” Levin said of Kara. “She’s remarkable in every respect…we wish we had never met her, because that would mean Nick would still be here…but he’s here in spirit. She carries on the memory of Nick with such courage and bravery…she shows us all how to love and show compassion and forgiveness and move forward.”
On Sept. 6, Town Manager Pettit, Chief Dean and Ryan Gantt from the Town’s Public Works Department will be traveling to New Jersey to help with another playground build. They felt they owed these “Angels” a day of work, according to Pettit, “at the very least.”
But according to Kara, she holds an even deeper debt of gratitude for a group of retired firefighters who gave up their week to honor her husband and build a playground that has created connections between her grandchildren and a man they never knew.
“As I stand here today and look at this playground, I think…a memorial is wonderful, but a place where we can come and play is even more meaningful,” said an emotional Kara, noting her visit to Washington, D.C. to see her husband’s name among the 23,000 on the National Law Enforcement Memorial.
“Nick was one in a million…father, husband, friend…he would not want us to look at a stone memorial, but look at something that represents him,” Kara continued. “It’s important because of the community involvement, because this community was so important to him…it’s important that it’s red, white and blue because of his patriotism…it’s important it was for the kids because he loved working with kids…This will be Nick’s playground. It will relay his love for having fun, being grateful for family, and coming together as a community.”
Kara lives less than three miles from the new playground at Hawksbill Park, and the prospect of taking her and Nick’s grandkids there on a regular basis has already proven to be another major milestone along the long road of healing.
As she pushed her granddaughter on the swing, she recalls her saying, “I’m swinging with papa.”
“We drove by it the other day and she said ‘It’s papa’,” Kara told the crowd. “That means more than anything in the world to me.”
For more information about the Where Angels Play Foundation,