Dominik Walters, 4, wanted to show off his cannonball skills to his father Ryan while visiting family in Minnesota in 2018.
Sporting a life jacket, Dominik jumped off the lake’s dock while Ryan caught him. His mother Tiffany filmed him smiling and laughing, she said.
“He was having the time of his life,” she said.
Around seven catches later, Ryan watched his son’s eyes widen then roll back into his head. Suddenly, Dominik went limp in Ryan’s arms. The boy never went underwater, so at the time his parents thought he had a seizure.
Despite CPR efforts, Dominik later died in the hospital on Aug. 12.
Devastated by the loss, Ryan and Tiffany looked for something positive to focus on. Immediately after his death, Tiffany and Ryan started brainstorming ways they could honor him.
They created a memorial fund through their bank and encouraged people to donate rather than spend money on cards and flowers. It grew to $20,000.
Unsure what they wanted to do, they researched different causes and charities.
“What do you do to carry on a 4-year-old?” Tiffany asked. “He loved playgrounds, I mean absolutely loved. We went to the park almost daily.”
Being from Minnesota, Ryan and Tiffany appreciate Chalco Hills Recreation Area’s secluded woods. Every Sunday afternoon, the couple took Dominik to the park. They ran, hiked and looked at animals. Dominik enjoyed pointing out X’s marked on trees and playing with sticks he found.
To honor his love of parks, they decided they wanted to spend the funds on playground equipment as their first, but not only, project.
When the family reached out to Papio Missouri River Natural Resources District, General Manager John Winkler said they were eager to help.
“What a devastating story,” Winkler said. “To try to put yourself in that position, we instantly jumped at the opportunity to work with them and build an amenity that kids throughout the entire community can enjoy.”
After learning the Papio NRD was interested and that they’d be able to name the playground after Dominik, the Walters decided to follow through with the plan.
Their ambitions grew from donating multiple pieces of equipment to replacing the entire existing playground, which is around 25 years old.
The current playground is safe, Winkler said, but doesn’t meet accessibility and a few other modern guidelines. It was grandfathered in, but Winkler said it’s time for an update.
Winkler said Papio NRD has been working “hand in hand” with the Walters during the planning process. He said they’ve ensured the playground would meet standard guidelines, including handicap access.
Through networking, they found a local playground designer willing to help the Walters’ dreams come to fruition. A representative of Creative Sites drew up a design that blew them away, Tiffany said.
It incorporates everything Dominik loved, like bouncy bridges, a big slide and lots of pieces to climb. The design is cars and space themed. There’s also a spot called Boon’s Books because Nora, the couple’s daughter whom Dominik nicknamed Boon, loves reading.
It will double to size of the existing 40-foot-by-40-foot playground.
Besides small community parks, Winkler said there aren’t many playgrounds nearby. He knows the need is strong, considering the existing playground is used year round. He expects the new, unique equipment to draw in big crowds.
With a location chosen and a design drawn, the Walters said the next step is to secure the funds needed.
The park’s estimated cost is $266,043. BCI Burke, the playground equipment company of which Creative Sites is a representative for, will pay for half of that cost.
They’ve currently raised $30,490 of $191,847 needed.
“The number of people who have given already is overwhelming,” Ryan said. “We honestly can’t believe how gracious people have been.”
Having so many people rally behind them through donations has been incredible, Tiffany said. Still, they need more donations to make it a reality.
“It hasn’t been enough to pull up people’s heartstrings,” Ryan said. “I mean, the story does that. But converting those into donations has been difficult.”
While Ryan said they wish “Uncle Warren” Buffett, billionaire from Omaha, would give them a donation big enough to get construction started, they’re also grateful the project is bigger than them. Every small donation from a different person makes the playground a community effort.
While Papio NRD isn’t donating to fundraising efforts, it will financially contribute a small portion of the construction costs.
Donations are accepted online at dominikwalters.com/donate. They’re also planning fundraisers.
They aim to begin construction in fall of 2020, but it all depends on donations.
“We’re excited, cautiously optimistic,” Ryan said. “Fundraising is a little bit of a roller coaster.”
Winkler said he’s inspired by how the Walters are channeling their grief into something that can help the community.
“The Walters family took a very tragic event and turned it into something positive,” Winkler said. “No matter what happens, you can make something very positive come from it.”