Playgrounds that pay tribute

Labor Relations Report 

On March 29, the Angel’s Army teamed up with Joey’s Little Angels in Hamilton to build a playground in honor of Joey Angiolino, who died of a rare genetic disease called Hurler syndrome (mucopolysaccharidosis) at the age of 15 months. After a long delay caused by the pandemic, this was the 60th build for the Where Angels Play Foundation (WAP), which was started by Bill Lavin 10 years ago. The playground, named Joey’s Place, was built in a single day at Limewood Park in Hamilton Township, by nearly a hundred volunteers.

I’ve been a member of the Angel’s Army since 2018. Each build is unique, but they all attempt to turn tragedy into triumph. After Joey passed away in 2010, his parents started Joey’s Little Angels. To date, they have donated over $100,000 to the Duke Pediatric Bone Marrow Transplant Family Support Program and families who have a child seeking medical treatment. During the holiday season, they hold toy drives, and with the support of volunteers — mostly middle and high school students — have donated over 12,000 toys to Duke University Hospital, Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, RWJ New Brunswick and many more.

In Italian, angiolino means “little angel,” so it was natural to have WAP build a custom playground that will serve as a safe place for children to play and a reminder of all the good that came out of Joey’s short but impactful life. This project was set to begin in spring 2020, but due to COVID, it was delayed. The Angiolinos were working closely with local businesses, friends and family, but the cost of building has increased tremendously since 2020. They began a fundraising effort that included the purchase of brick pavers for supporters to leave their mark at Joey’s Place.

Angel’s Army veterans Debra Debenedetto of Rockaway Boro Local 268, Brigantine Local 204 member Charlie Kerley, Brick Township Local 230 member John Boronkas and Rahway Local 31 member Rob Zarzycki showed up for the first of five playgrounds scheduled to be built this year. Mercer County Sheriff’s Office Local 187 State Delegate Pat Papero is a council member in Hamilton, and he was excited to work on this project after years of anticipation. Pat brought a few members of the Mercer County Sheriff’s Department and Prosecutor’s Office to help.

Hamilton Local 66 State Delegate Tom Glugsten took impressive control of an impact driver to secure the walls to 4-inch rolled-steel poles. Ewing Township Local 111 State Delegate Alex Maldonado handled the safe demolition of the pallets and packaging that once contained the thousands of pieces that make up a playground of this size. Hamilton resident and Essex County Corrections Local 382 Alternate State Delegate Theus Berrios pitched in with other PBA members, connecting all of those pieces, alongside firefighters who came from as far away as Boston and Myrtle Beach.

All of Where Angels Play’s projects have been under the direction of Toni Giordano and Rich Picerno, who are Honorary Silver Life members of the PBA from Kenilworth Local 135. Their generous support of their local police over many years has been expanded worldwide with WAP builds from Rwanda to Puerto Rico to just west of the Mississippi River. Picerno– Giordano Construction LLC has been a leader in the recreation industry since 1989, when they built their first volunteer playground in Summit. Seeing the need for talented builders in this specialty market led them to move into the recreation construction business. They have built beautiful parks, water parks, fitness centers and nature preserves throughout the United States. Their clients are schools, childcare centers, municipal parks and military facilities.

The early builds were chronicled in a terrific book by William J. Lavin and Smitty Lavin, Where Angels Live, Work, and Play: The Story of the Sandy Ground Project, available online at

Sept. 11, 2001. Aug. 29, 2005. Oct. 29, 2012. Dec. 14, 2012. Four infamous dates in the recent history of our nation. Four catastrophes, both natural and manmade, that will never be forgotten. If you asked yourself what these four dates have in common, you would quickly think of death, destruction, chaos and desperation.

But what if — through 9/11, two devastating storms and the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School — there was a common thread leading somewhere good? Something that would get you thinking of life, creation, meaning and hope?

This is one man’s story of connecting those dots. In starting the Sandy Ground Project, Bill Lavin sought the blessing of 26 families in an effort to rebuild hope after some of America’s darkest hours. It was a mission that all of his experiences, both personal and professional, had
been preparing him for.

Building 26 playgrounds in 26 storm-ravaged communities in honor of 26 angels taken too soon: This was the big idea. How could such an undertaking possibly come together? As Bill will tell you, the angels did all of the work.

The tragedies that inspired the Sandy Ground Project led to 34 additional triumphs to date that continue to bring joy and hope to communities through these playgrounds. As Rich and Bill frequently say, we look forward to the day when we no longer have to build playgrounds, but until then we will gladly do this work with a tremendous group of volunteers.

The next playground will be constructed beginning May 16 in New Haven, Connecticut, and will honor Kathy Carroll, a Yale professor who dedicated her life to reaching underserved populations worldwide with affordable treatment for substance addiction. That will be followed by a trip to Stanley, Virginia, on May 31 for a build that will reflect the life and personality of Stanley Police Officer Nick Winum. Officer Winum lost his life in the line of duty on Feb. 26, 2021. Nick loved helping kids, and this will be a gift from Nick to the kids in the community for generations to come. His widow, Kara, addressed the board of delegates at our meeting in Atlantic City, telling a story of compassion and forgiveness.

I realize that I am extremely biased toward this organization, but everyone who comes to a build comes away feeling a part of something special. I encourage you to check out the website or Facebook page. Hopefully, some of you will want to join us. But I must warn you that it creates an intoxicating effect that you will want to enjoy over and over again.