MANCHESTER — The parents of a Manchester boy who died after being swept away by a wave during a family vacation in North Carolina last year want to honor their son by donating a new playground to the elementary school he would have attended as a kindergartner this fall.
Wesley Belisle, 4, died in April 2018 when he was swept into the Atlantic Ocean while on a trip to the 90-mile Outer Banks vacation area with his parents, Lindsey and Derek Belisle of Manchester. At the time, authorities said Wesley was walking along a beach with his mother when he was carried out to sea by a rogue wave. His body was recovered the following week at Carova Beach, about 34 miles north of Kitty Hawk.
The Belisles are working with Bill Lavin from the “Where Angels Play Foundation” to design and “gift” a new playground on the campus of Green Acres Elementary School in Manchester. The foundation helps support families who have lost a child by building playgrounds honoring their memory.
“He (Wesley) was very much ahead of his time,” said Lindsey Belisle. “Very inquisitive, intelligent, sweet and kind, happy to help people. I think a playground like this will help people.”
A proposal for the playground — to be designed and constructed free of charge to the city or school district — is on the agenda for the school board’s Building and Sites committee meeting Tuesday at 5 p.m. at City Hall. If committee members support the idea, the plan would head to the Finance Committee and full school board for approval.
More than a year after the loss of their son, both Derek and Lindsey say they have “good and bad days.”
“Every day is different,” said Derek. “The foundation helps, knowing you are doing something good for someone else helps.”
“This is the new normal,” said Lindsey. “It’s not what we want, but it’s what we have, and we have to do the best we can.”
In the months following their son’s death, the Belisles and their extended family created Wesley’s Way Foundation, a nonprofit organization working to promote education and awareness of the dangers of the ocean, promote literacy and education, help underprivileged community members, and provide community improvement by enhancing parks and playgrounds.
Lindsey Belisle said the initial plan for the playground calls for equipment and structures that would allow the site to be enjoyed by all children, including those with disabilities.
“While we were on vacation we took Wesley to a playground at Dowdy Park at Nags Head,” said Lindsey. “He loved it there. I think he used every piece of equipment. When we were starting to talk about ways the foundation could help people, we thought of bringing something like Dowdy Park to the area.”
Lindsey said after Wesley died, she heard from state Deputy Commissioner of Education and former Beech Street Elementary School principal Christine Brennan, who put her in touch with Scarlett Lewis, the mother of Jesse Lewis. The first-grader was killed in his classroom in the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012.
Eventually the Belisles met up with Bill Lavin, founder of Where Angels Play Foundation.
“We met and talked, and right away he said he wanted to be involved with a playground for Wesley,” said Lindsey.
The foundation designs and builds playgrounds that feature colors and structures important to the child being honored.
“Wesley loved orange and purple, so those will be incorporated,” said his mother. “He loved Jeeps, too. Loved counting them if we were out, loved cars, and his favorite animal was a pig. If he saw an orange Jeep, well that was the best thing ever.”
She said while many sites were considered, the Green Acres campus was chosen because it’s where Wesley would have attended school, and its current playground equipment could use an upgrade.
“We actually took Wesley there, so he will have played at the site where his playground might be built,” said Lindsey.
Manchester Mayor Joyce Craig said when Wesley’s family reached out and said they were interested in donating a playground, she discussed the idea with them and Superintendent of Schools John Goldhardt and city Parks and Recreation Director Mark Gomez.
“This was a tragedy, but the family is looking to remember Wesley in a beautiful way,” said Craig.
“We are committed to supporting this effort from start to finish,” said Gomez.
Gomez said the hope is to have the new playground installed by the fall of 2020.
Estimates place the cost between $80,000 and $100,000, to be covered in full by donations.
To that end, Wesley’s Way Foundation is planning the first Wesley’s Way 5k for April 19, 2020 in Manchester. Registration and more details can be found on the event website, https://runsignup.com/wesleysway5k.