VIDEO BELOW: “You Are My Sunshine”
“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.” – Abraham Lincoln
MANCHESTER, NH – On Saturday morning under a big blue sky more than 200 people gathered behind Green Acres Elementary School to dedicate a playground in memory of Wesley Belisle, who should have finished his first year of school there this year. Wesley was 4 years old when he was swept away into the ocean on April 25, 2018, while on vacation in Kitty Hawk, NC, with his family.
They have bravely and boldly turned their grief into multiple acts of charity and kindness, including steering this playground project.
In partnership with a national organization, Where Angels Play Foundation, Wesley’s family and a small army of volunteers including a contingency of Manchester Firefighters last week built an ADA-accessible playground behind the school. The gesture will ensure that his classmates – and the community – will always know the value of his young life, and that love and friendship is strong enough to conquer even the most heart-breaking of tragedies.
“We want to thank Wesley, first and foremost, for dialing up this amazing weather. He greeted us with a rainbow when we first arrived and he’s been supporting us ever since,” said Bill Lavin, founder of Where Angels Play. “Angels is another word for hero. Some people believe in angels. We know there are angels. So if you’re a little unsure, there’s enough of us to believe in angels for the rest of us. I promise you that.”
Lavin started Where Angels Play while president of the New Jersey State Firefighters’ Mutual Benevolent Association in response to the 2012 shooting as Sandy Hook Elementary that claimed 26 lives, including 20 children. Since then they have been planting playgrounds across the country, a soon-to-be international mission that was inspired by “the Sandy Hook angels,” Lavin said. Wesley’s Way is their 56th playground.
Sandy Hook parent Scarlett Lewis, mother of Jesse Lewis who lost his life that day, works closely with the foundation and was on hand Saturday, introduced by Lavin as “one of the bravest people I know.” Lewis came to offer her perspective on taking tragedy and turning it into “healing, nurturing and love,” a lesson she says she learned through the loss of her son and which has led to the Choose Love movement, which has been adopted by New Hampshire’s board of education as a practice toward improving students’ social-emotional learning.
“I know how much courage it takes for Lindsey and Derek to show up today to give this incredible gift to you all, and the incredible courageous leadership it takes to create something like this from all levels, from the top down to the bottom up. This is an example of what we can do as individuals, but also as a society together. Where Angels Play models this. These are regular people; they have regular lives. They struggle, they’ve had tragedy in their lives, they have jobs… yet they show up. They show up for people in need. They come from all over and go all over to be there, to be present. It takes courage to leave their own lives … to be here. Where Angels Play models what is possible in our world,” Lewis said.
“We’re here as individuals to love and support one another. That’s why we’re here on this planet,” Lewis said, preparing to drop some evolutionary wisdom on the crowd. “Charles Darwin, the famous evolutionist – everybody knows him for ‘survival of the fittest,’ right? He never said that. Does that surprise some of you? Do you know what he said? He said ‘survival of the most sympathetic,’ that’s what he concluded. Sympathetic means altruistic, generous and compassionate. Think about how we survive as individuals. Why are you here today? You’re here because somebody was there for you, somebody loved you, somebody supported you, somebody lifted you up, not because we’re competing and pushing each other aside,” Lewis said. “Can you imagine the world that we could create, a world that we want to live in, that’s safe, that’s loving, that’s compassionate when we choose love?”
Lavin announced that the old Green Acres playground had been disassembled and would be transported to a school in Puerto Rico where children have no playground. Paying it forward – from the families of Sandy Hook and the volunteers who always show up, to the play equipment that can put some fun into the lives of children, that is what it’s all about, he said.
Other attendees included Mayor Joyce Craig, and NH’s first lady Valerie Sununu, and Green Acres Principal Michael Beaulac, who directed his comments to his students.
Photo Gallery by Jeffrey Hastings
“Two days ago this was a dirt pit as you remember right before school finished. This has been built on friendship. A bunch of people all over the country coming together – never met before and we’ve become friends. So when you’re playing out here, it’s the perfect opportunity to make friends. You can have friendships that will last forever built right on this playground. And if you’re looking for a friend, you’ll always have one because Wesley’s always going to be right here,” Beaulac said.
Much credit was given to the city’s Parks and Rec department, and all the project sponsors for making it all happen so quickly.
An additional blessing for the community has been through the founding of Wesley’s Way. Wesley’s extended family established the charitable foundation to help others in need, and to do it “Wesley’s Way,” with genuine compassion for others just as Wesley demonstrated in his short but inspiring life. The outreach has been making a difference through food donations, Christmas gifts for kids in need and other projects here in New Hampshire and in North Carolina.
On Saturday Lindsey Belisle stepped to the microphone cradling the family dachshund Coco, 16, who was “with us before Wesley and who Wesley loved so much.” She thanked everyone for their love and generosity in the best way she knew how.
“Wesley would frequently say “a-yaught” instead of “a lot,” so I know he would love this playground “a-yaught,” his mom said.
A flag featuring the Wesley’s Way emblem was raised along with an American flag as a tender rendition of “You Are My Sunshine” played in the background [see video above].
Once the ribbon was cut the first kid to enter the playground was Fiona Brennan, who would have been a classmate of Wesley’s. She was pushed up the ramp in her wheelchair by her dad, followed by a parade of happy kids.
“This playground was designed specifically for this young lady, so Fiona can play with all her friends,” Lavin said.