Firefighter's project honors Sandy Hook victims in Hurricane Sandy-struck communities

The Sandy Ground: Where Angels Play project builds playgrounds in the names of the Newtown massacre victims in areas devastated by the 2012 superstorm

When Hurricane Sandy pounded the eastern seaboard last October, the storm left countless cities, streets, schools and families in ruin. Then, just as first responders were starting to make sense of all the devastation, Adam Lanza opened fire on Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., gunning down 20 children and six adults on December 14, 2012, before shooting himself in the head.

Many lives changed as a result of those two events, including that of Elizabeth (N.J.) Fire Capt. Bill Lavin. Searching for a way to help the people of both tragedies heal, Lavin came up with the concept of building 26 playgrounds, to honor each of the Newtown victims, in communities destroyed by the superstorm.

“I remember saying to my wife, ‘Am I crazy?’” he said. “She said, ‘Yes, you’re crazy but it’s a great idea.’”

The Sandy Ground: Where Angels Play was born. So far 13 playgrounds, each designed to reflect the personalities of one of those killed, have been erected across multiple states still in need of some TLC more than a year after the storm. Lavin first reached out to family members of the Newtown victims, and all were supportive of the project. Many have even helped build the play structures.

“I think it’s cathartic for them,” Lavin said. “They’re helping communities recover and kind of getting outside of their own grief.”

Building the playgrounds has also had a significant impact on Lavin.

“For me,” he said, “it’s saved my soul.”

Renewed faith in people

As the long-time president of the New Jersey State Firefighters’ Mutual Benevolent Association (NJFMBA), Lavin led the union’s ongoing battle for better benefits for firefighters, struggling particularly for pensions and health care for first responders retiring with less than 20 years of experience.

“My job for 16 years was to argue with the government and legislature,” he said. While rewarding on a certain level, “politics in New Jersey is about as ugly a business I have seen.”

 It left him depressed and drained — but building playgrounds has had the opposite effect, to the point where he stepped down from the union board on Oct. 1 to focus his energy on Sandy Ground.

“You get burnt out after a while,” he said. “And being involved in this project has renewed my faith in mankind.”

Paying it forward

The seeds of Sandy Ground were unknowingly planted by another tragedy: 9/11. After the September 11 terrorist attacks, a firefighter in Lavin’s department had a niece who taught third grade in Mississippi. Her class sent care packages to the first responders.

Then, when Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast in 2005, firefighters wondered how those kids were doing.

“We did some research, and the whole school was destroyed,” Lavin said.

They put together a fundraiser and visited the area six months later. When asking what the community needed, the response was that children could really use a place to play. So the Elizabeth fire department built three local playgrounds — which Lavin says were the first handicapped accessible playgrounds in the state of Mississippi.

Seven years later, New Jersey faced a natural disaster of its own. One week after Superstorm Sandy — and just hours after the power was restored to the NJFMBA offices — Lavin received a phone call from a businessman in Mississippi.

“Mr. Billy Lamb explained to me that the community of Waveland and Bay St. Louis, Mississippi were collecting Christmas gifts for New Jersey children affected by the storm in an effort to ‘pay it forward’ to those who had showed such kindness to them in their hour of need,” Lavin wrote on the Sandy Ground website.

Along with a trailer containing 1,000 wrapped toys was a video of kids thanking firefighters for the playgrounds they built years earlier. Lavin called the gesture “an absolute spiritual shot in the arm.” Then came the Newtown massacre, and it brought the country to a standstill. While struggling to come up with a way to make a difference, thinking about the impact of those long-ago playgrounds led to Lavin’s epiphany.

“I came up with this idea that maybe,” he said, “that’s how we can heal.”

Where Angels Play

Jessica Rekos loved horses and orca whales. One of the students killed in the Sandy Hook shooting, her playground in Fairfield, Conn. features a whale sand sculpture created by the Fairfield Fire Department, and her structure was built on one of the only local beaches that’s open to horses after October.

Student Allison Wyatt was known for sharing her Pepperidge Farm Goldfish crackers with complete strangers, and her Norwalk, Conn. playground features goldfish emblems throughout. Jack Pinto was a New York Giants fan, and his playground in Union Beach, N.J. is in the shape of a giant football.

“We’re trying to focus on the way they lived,” Lavin said. “Their personality is reflected in the playground.”

Building community

It takes about a week to build each playground, with Lavin’s core group of about 30 to 40 people, many of them retired firefighters, traveling across states and teaming up with local volunteers from the groundbreaking to the ribbon-cutting ceremonies.

“It’s a labor of love,” Lavin said. “We’ve got guys who’ve worked in Fairfield (Conn.) and will travel all the way to New Jersey.” Some have planned their vacations and scheduled surgeries around the builds.

Countless others have stepped up to help raise money for the $3 million project, which is about halfway toward the fundraising goal. Efforts range from lemonade stands and kids selling bracelets, to 5K races and charity concerts, to endorsements by Carnival Cruise Lines and the NFL.

The playground build-outs bring together career and volunteer firefighters and EMTs, local police and state troopers, teachers, administrators, parents and corporations.

 “It’s apolitical,” Lavin said. “It’s everyone just pulling together to do something nice for the community.”

He’s worked side-by-side with fathers of Newtown survivors who said if it weren’t for a miracle, they would be building a playground for their own daughters.

“It’s nothing short of remarkable to watch the enthusiasm and camaraderie,” Lavin said.

More angels to honor

The 26 playgrounds are scheduled to be completed by late spring or early summer of 2014, and will culminate with a 27th playground in Newtown that will pay homage to the first responders of Sandy Hook — an idea that stemmed from the families of those killed in the school shooting.

Although the project has an end in sight, Lavin has started receiving requests for more playgrounds for young people, including victims of the Boston Marathon bombing.

“I think the Where Angels Play Foundation is going to be around for a long time,” Lavin said. “There’s no shortage, unfortunately, of tragedies involving kids.” 

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