James and Nicole Angiolino and daughter Olivia view the sign placed in memory of Joey Angiolino at his namesake playground. Carter Hillsdon photo
James and Nicole Angiolino and daughter Olivia view the sign placed in memory of Joey Angiolino at his namesake playground. Carter Hillsdon photo

Thirteen years after his untimely passing, the memory of Joseph Angiolino is still making an impact in the lives of children across New Jersey – most recently with the April 6 opening of “Joey’s Place” – an all-inclusive, accessible playground, on what would have been Joey’s 14th birthday.

The foundation that bears his name – Joey’s Little Angels, founded by his parents, James and Nicole Angiolino – teamed up with the Where Angels Play Foundation to construct the playground at 25 Limewood Drive in Hamilton. Joey was diagnosed at seven months with a rare genetic disease called Hurler's Syndrome, for which there is no cure; he died at 15 months old.

“It’s triumph over tragedy,” said James, who is also dean of students in Notre Dame High School, Lawrenceville. He and his family, including children Nick, Matthew and Olivia, belong to St. Gregory the Great Parish, Hamilton Square. “This community supported us at a time when we needed it most. And this is our gift back to them, from the angels above… Losing a child is the most unimaginable thing that you could go through. And my wife, Nicole, and I have made a very positive situation out of something negative.”

PHOTO GALLERY: Joey's Place Playground

“It’s not a playground until the kids run on it and make it a playground,” said Bill Lavin, founder of Where Angels Play. “Just to bring joy and happiness not only to the community, but especially for James and Nicole … to have their son never be forgotten, it means the world … People thank me, but I get far more out of it than we give.”

Where Angels Play came about in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy and the tragic school shooting in Newtown, Conn. The New Jersey Firemen’s Benevolent Association looked to honor the victims by building a playground in Newtown, as they had in Mississippi following Hurricane Katrina. Lavin, member of the Elizabeth Fire Department and NJFMBA president at the time, began the 26-playground project in Sandy-destroyed communities – one to honor the memory of each teacher or student lost in Newtown, and the Where Angels Play Foundation was established. Consequently, the Newtown families have helped to continue the initiative in communities nationwide.

Joey’s Little Angels non-profit has collected and donated more than 40,000 Christmas gifts to children in need, sponsored Disney trips and donated $100,000 to the Duke Pediatric Bone Marrow Transplant Family Support Program and other families with a child seeking medical treatment.

Assisting with the playground building were students of NDHS’s Joey’s Earth Angels, of which James is moderator. The club also assists with the annual JLA toy drive and fundraising gala.

“We can't do it alone,” James attested. “We collaborated with Where Angels Play, Hamilton Township, the mayor's office … we made things happen. We're extremely excited about it.”

Nick Angiolino, Joey’s older brother by 15 months, also spoke at the grand opening. “[This park] means so many things – all these people coming out, supporting what we did for all these sick children … it’s great to see them here. They all contributed.”

When asked how he thought Joey would feel about the playground erected in his honor, Nick said, “He’d be full of joy … He’s done so many great things for other kids around the world.”

For more information on Joey’s Little Angels, visit https://www.joeyslittleangels.org/.

Audio interviews and photos by student contributor Carter Hillsdon contributed to this article.