Last Saturday saw the dedication of the new playground at Long Lots Elementary School, the fourth of 26 to be built as a part of The Sandy Ground: Where Angels Play project, in the memory those who lost their lives in the tragedy at Sandy Hook School on December 12.
This story of community begins in the aftermath of 9/11, when some Mississippi school children wrote letters to firefighters in Elizabeth, New Jersey to thank them for helping at Ground Zero. When Hurricane Katrina crashed into the Gulf Coast, these firefighters reciprocated by traveling to Mississippi to build three playgrounds for those children.
After Superstorm Sandy devastated New Jersey shore town communities Gulf Coast children again responded – this time sending letters, cards and Christmas gifts to children in this area.
Just as the truckload of gifts arrived came the horror at Sandy Hook. At about the same time Bill Lavin, President of the New Jersey State Firefighter’s Mutual Benevolent Association, received a video from a nine year old Mississippi girl that brought him back to the playgrounds.
Following six weeks of long hours helping clear out and clean up after the Storm, Sandy Hook “overwhelmed” him, Westport Deputy Fire Chief Robert Kepchar told Sunrise Rotary on Friday.
Lavin and the NJFMBA intertwined the tragedies and created The Sandy Ground Project. They asked each of the 26 Sandy Hook families to designate a town that had been damaged by the Storm where volunteers would build a playground to commemorate the life of their lost relative. And they determined to make each one different to reflect the personality and the passions of the site’s honoree.
As they got into planning “26” became a theme: 26 playgrounds, each 2,600 square feet, and each construction team to be led by 26 first responders, teachers and community volunteers.
Four have been built. Westport’s is the fourth, then one in Stratford, and then Asbury Park, NJ.
As Lavin raised money he kept hearing “pay it forward,” use money raised today for future projects. The $116,000 cost of our playground, for example, was completely privately funded before work began, so Westporter’s donations – including $2,600 donated by Sunrise Rotary – will pay for upcoming projects.
Chief Kepchar, who continues to work closely with Lavin’s group, said our town “is honored to be chosen by the family of first grader Dylan Hockley.” They have ties to our town and Westport is close enough that his older brother Jake can easily use the new facility.
Long Lots PTA president Lauren Goodman joined Kepchar. She told the group her organization contributed funds raised in a bake sale, as it turned out, held the day of the tragedy. She added that many Long Lots families joined in building the playground, and now the children look forward to enjoying it.
The playground embodies two of Dylan’s favorites – the color purple and butterflies. His mother Nicole commented that “he loved playgrounds… particularly twisting, curly slides… he scared me.”
Giordano Contracting, a Kenilworth, New Jersey specialty playground designer and builder is heading up every one of the projects. For Dylan – and for Westport – they built a playground with pretty purple swings, slides, ramps and bridges to provide enjoyment for every child. To make it truly “kid-friendly” they covered the play area with a soft spongy rubber surface to cushion every fall.
The volunteer builders, led by Jake Hockley, included about 100 community members plus three always ready community supporters – Gault Energy, who supplied all the cement and crushed stone for the bed under the playground pieces; A.J. Penna & Son, who dug up rocks and dirt Kowalsky Brothers General Contractors hauled out, then replaced it with a similar volume of high quality subsurface material trucked in by Kowalsky.
Those interested in The Sandy Project: Where Angels Play should visit its website: http://www.thesandygroundproject.org/, and those interested in learning more about Dylan and the fund his parents have established in his memory, and to support programs for autistic and special needs children should visit: http://www.dylanhockley.com/.