Years before Wynsum Avenue Park received its long-awaited playground, Jenna Field, who was 4 at the time, eyed the vacant lot in Merrick, perplexed as to where the slides and swings were. She was there with her father, Shawn Field, who grew up across the street from the park.
“She asked, ‘When are they going to put the playground back?’” he said. “She thought [Hurricane Sandy] took all the equipment away.”
Jenna wanted a playground, and the request was treated like any other favor that she would ask of her father, said Jamie Field, Shawn’s wife. “He would move mountains for our kids,” she said, “and in this case he moved dirt and made way for a playground.”
But Field couldn’t do it alone, so he asked his good friend Jay Rogoff, a fellow Merrick father, to help him out. During an early-morning interview with the Herald Life at Bagel Boss, the two cracked jokes and bumped fists, a clear display of their nearly 10-year-long friendship.
“I said, ‘It sounds like a great idea,’” Rogoff recalled, “but little did we know what we would have to go through to actually get it done.”
The two spent five years and countless hours attending Town of Hempstead board meetings, working with elected officials and organizing fundraisers to get a playground for Wynsum Avenue Park — a goal that came with its own set of “hurdles,” Field said. This year, the playground hosted its first season of play, allowing scores of children to socialize with their friends on a brand new set of slides, swings and jungle gyms.
For accomplishing this goal, which, by all accounts, improved the community, the Herald Life is proud to name Shawn Field and Jay Rogoff its 2019 People of the Year.
The idea of building a playground at Wynsum Avenue Park — at Wynsum and Illona Lane on south Merrick’s Hewlett peninsula — was nothing new, Field said. Other residents had made similar attempts as early as the 1970s, according to Joe Baker, president of the South Merrick Community Civic Association. Rogoff’s wife, Dana, a lifelong Merrick resident, said she remembered riding her bike through the formerly barren park, and the failed attempts to build a playground there.
“I grew up around the corner from the park, and it’s always been a green space, but the possibility of a playground was always a topic of conversation,” Dana said. “A lot of people were skeptical [of Field’s and Jay’s proposal] — in their minds it was another effort that wouldn’t pass.”
Field, 40, and Rogoff, 36, teamed up with SMCCA in 2014 to form a subcommittee for the playground, Let’s Play 11566; they serve as its co-chairs. That year, with no prior advocacy experience, the two began making their case to the town. In November they received their first response from the parks department — Field still has the letter on his desk. It indicated that they could build the playground if they had the support and the funds to back it up.
The two organized a number of fundraisers to raise money for the playground. They served neighbors heaping plates of breakfast food during a fundraiser at Applebee’s; solicited raffle prizes from local businesses; sold sponsorships to neighbors who wanted to put their name on a brick or a bench or a table in the park; and held events at the Brokerage Comedy Club in Bellmore.
Over four years, the committee managed to secure $300,000 in state and local grants, and raised $45,000 in private donations. The grass-roots fundraising, said Nassau County Legislator Steve Rhoads, “really demonstrated how much residents wanted this project.”
Rhoads also cited Field’s and Rogoff’s “tireless efforts” behind the scenes. “They came up with the design for what people ultimately see today,” he said. “From planning to construction, they were intimately involved in every step of the process.”
A 2016 town poll indicated that residents living near Wynsum Avenue Park supported the proposed playground by a margin of 2 to 1. Also that year, during a fundraiser at the Brokerage, Field announced that Let’s Play had won a $100,000 grant from former State. Sen. Michael Venditto’s office. “That moment brought me to tears,” Jamie said. “It felt like this vision was going to come to fruition — it felt like it was real.”
Then came more hurdles.
As Field and Rogoff continued to advocate for the park, opposition mounted. Neighbors who lived nearby were worried about the negative effects the playground could have on public safety, traffic and property values. Former Councilwoman Erin King Sweeney, who supported the project, opened her home to residents who wished to air their grievances to the committee. But for every concern presented, the two were determined to find a solution.
“We went out of the way to make people happy, from shifting the actual location of the playground to putting up trees and shrubbery in the right places to block views,” Rogoff added. “It was something we were happy to do all along.”
Dana said the amount of compromising involved showed Field’s and Rogoff’s true character. “Their ability to be flexible and figure out how we could work together to make this happen was really beautiful,” she said. “It was done strictly to better the community.”
The playground was also a hot-button issue at Town Board meetings. In 2016, Rhoads applied for a $75,000 county grant to help fund the project, which required approval from the Town Board before it could be released. Then Town Supervisor Anthony Santino and his voting majority put off a decision to accept the grant on Oct. 3, 2017 — Santino insisted that he wanted consensus among residents before the project moved forward.
However, at the Nov. 14 Town Board meeting — the first after the 2017 election in which current Supervisor Laura Gillen defeated Santino — the board voted in favor of accepting the funds.
Let’s Play broke ground on the playground on Aug. 23, 2018; it officially opened on April 28, 2019.
“Going there on a Saturday afternoon in the middle of the summer and seeing 100 kids laughing and smiling made it all worth it,” Rogoff said.
“The kids no longer call it a ‘make-believe park,’” Baker said. “It’s a wonderful thing for the community, and Jay and Shawn deserve recognition for what they have accomplished.” Baker recently met a new neighbor who moved in across the street from Wynsum Avenue Park. He told Baker that he bought the house specifically for its proximity to the playground, so his kids could have a place to play.
Jamie Field said this was Shawn’s and Rogoff’s endgame, and was ultimately accomplished through their passion, determination and focus. “They were with each other every step of the way, and utilized each other’s strengths,” she said. “They had obstacles, but they were so driven and determined that it didn’t deter them from moving forward — they just kept pushing.”
Field and Rogoff have three children each, and the families often visit the playground together. “It’s a warm feeling to watch our kids explore new possibilities,” Dana said. “These two strong men were very sensitive to the fact that this was for their children — it was all for their children.”