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New Jersey firefighter Capt. Bill Lavin is building 26 playgrounds for each of the 26 victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, in communities that were hit hard by superstorm Sandy last year.
It’s part of his project called The Sandy Ground: Where Angels Play. Two of the playgrounds are being built in New Jersey this week.
The playgrounds reflect the personalities of the victims, and Lavin says the young siblings of the first graders killed at the school last year are made special “foremen” on the day of playground construction, to help them heal.
Carlos Soto had one playground built near his home in honor of his daughter Victoria Soto, a teacher who was killed at the school in Newtown, Conn. He says it’s healing to spend time there.
Capt. Bill Lavin on superstorm Sandy and Newtown
“The entire state was devastated by the storm, and just as we were getting our feet back under us, the tragedy of Newtown, Connecticut, occurred and everything stalled — all our efforts stalled — and we really started to question as to what it was all about.”
Carlos Soto on the playground dedicated to his daughter
“For me it’s been almost like therapy, because doing these playgrounds, I enjoy it, and I don’t have to sit at home just thinking about it. Now I could do something for my daughter. You know, she’s no longer with me, but she always will be in my heart. When we’re building, she’s always looking down at us with her students, seeing that something ugly happened, something beautiful is coming out of it.”
Capt. Bill Levin on the reaction to the playgrounds
“The Union Beach build, for example, we started to build — and that’s a blue collar community devastated by the storm — we had residents come up to us and say, ‘You know, I didn’t know whether I would rebuild my home, I didn’t know whether I was just going to leave,’ and they said, ‘I saw this beautiful playground coming out of the ground and it gave me hope that this town and this community is going to recover.’ So in a very real way, children and teachers who left us far too soon are going to be remembered and celebrated for generations.”
Jennifer Hensel and Jeremy Richman, parents of 6-year-old Newtown victim Avielle Richman, sent this letter to Capt. Bill Lavin:
It took us weeks before we read William Lavin’s letter to us. There was too much grief to bear. Even reading letters of condolence was impossible.
When we had the strength, we started to read the letters we received from around the nation and world. Among the many letters was one in particular, from William Lavin and the New Jersey State Firefighters Mutual Benevolent Association Foundation, Inc. This letter sang to our spirits. A generous act of kindness was being offered, an offer that would benefit so very many children – a gift to a community ravaged by Hurricane Sandy, a gift for children, a playground in the honor of our daughter, Avielle, was being offered.
Children are the foundation of our country, our country’s FUTURE. Children need safe, clean, and beautiful outdoor spaces in which to climb, run, jump, laugh, and explore. My husband and I thank you Mr. Lavin and the New Jersey State Firefighters Mutual Benevolent Association Foundation, Inc. for creating these spaces so important to the community.
When you and your children are on the playground dedicated to Avielle, look for fairies and their homes, laugh openly, climb a tree, play tag, blow dandelion seeds to the wind, hop on one leg for one full minute, swing higher than the clouds, fly a kite, hide behind a boulder, eat apples and blueberries, be a monkey on the bars, and see the beautiful polka dots, stripes, and squiggles that make up the landscape of a child’s heart.
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
It's HERE AND NOW. Twenty-four-year-old Colleen Ritzer is being remembered today in Danvers, Massachusetts, as a beloved math teacher who police say was shot and killed last night at her school by a 14-year-old student. Sparks Nevada middle-school math teacher Michael Landsberry was shot on Monday; a 12-year-old student then killed himself.
School shootings seem particularly horrific. Schools are supposed to be safe places. But a retired firefighter has decided to restore some of the sense of place by building playgrounds for each of the victims of last year's Newtown school shooting in Sandy Hook, Connecticut, and to build them in communities devastated by Superstorm Sandy.
This week, two playgrounds are being built in honor of first-graders Avielle Richmond And Daniel Barden. New Jersey firefighter Bill Lavin founded The Sandy Ground: Where Angels Play Project. He's also former president of the New Jersey Firefighters Mutual Benevolence Association. He joins us from KNPR in Las Vegas, where he's fundraising for the playgrounds. Bill, welcome.
BILL LAVIN: Thanks for having me.
YOUNG: And tell us how this started. We know New Jersey was just trying to climb out from under the damage and devastation of Superstorm Sandy when the Newtown shooting happened. Do you remember how that hit you?
LAVIN: Yes, the storm, Hurricane Sandy, really devastated the coast of New Jersey, and many of our members and the entire state was devastated by the storm. And just as we were getting our feet back under us, the tragedy of Newtown, Connecticut, occurred, and everything stalled. Al our efforts stalled, and, you know, we really started to question as to what it was all about.
YOUNG: You were sort of in shock. I mean, you say stalled. It's like, you know, you were all in a daze.
LAVIN: Yeah, no question. We had lost property, and we were concerned about housing and things of that nature. And as my mom used to say, you know, put your problems in a pile with everybody else's, and you'd fight to get yours back.
YOUNG: What a great saying from your mom.
LAVIN: Yeah, yeah, it's kind of...
YOUNG: Put your problems in a pile, yeah.
LAVIN: Yeah, it's kind of what I live by. And I received an email, a video email from Mississippi. We had built playgrounds in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, and these children were thanking us for the playground we had built seven years ago. They were collecting Christmas gifts for our children in New Jersey.
And one little girl in that video said, you know, thank you for the playground you had built seven years ago and for the bigger gift of caring about us. So it was at that moment that I thought maybe building playgrounds, which was how we could potentially connect the two storms, and that's how we would recover.
The two I think most beautiful pieces of this is the playgrounds reflect the personality and interest of the individual for whom it's dedicated. So if a little child like Jessica Rekos loved horses, there was a theme of horses within that. If it was the color pink and Christmas, then Victoria Soto's playground would reflect that.
And the other thing was, the real special piece is we have the brothers and sisters, in some cases five- and six- and seven-year-old children, who are the siblings of those killed, who we make our foreman. And they physically actively get involved in the creation of their brother or sister's playground. And to watch the family and heal and see that as a, you know, just a wonderful moment is a real special piece of the project.
YOUNG: Well, you mentioned Victoria Soto, and that of course reminds us it's not just children whose memories you are honoring. We know the name. Victoria Soto was the 27-year-old teacher at Sandy Hook Elementary School. She was shot and killed. She's credited with saving so many of her students.
And we want to bring in her father, who is sitting there with you, Carlos Soto. Carlos, it's been about a year, but I - we still want to express our condolences to you for the loss of this extraordinary young woman.
CARLOS SOTO: Thank you.
YOUNG: What did you think, though, when you were first approached about the idea of building a playground in her honor?
SOTO: When I met Bill, I was very happy about something like that.
YOUNG: Well, some people would worry about it bringing up old wounds or being something that would be a reminder of a place they didn't want to go in their heart. But what has it been for you?
SOTO: Well, for me it's been almost like therapy because doing these playgrounds, I enjoy it, and I don't have to sit at home just thinking about it. Now I could do something for my daughter. You know, she's no longer with me, but she always will be in my heart. When we're building, she's always looking down at us with her students, seeing that something ugly happened, something beautiful is coming out of it.
YOUNG: Well Bill, healing, we can hear. What has it done for people in the Jersey Shore to have this reminder of the shooting in Connecticut?
LAVIN: Well, it's amazing. People thank us for doing this project, and it's - some people would see it as a gift from, you know, the Where Angels Play Foundation to the community. The truth is it's a gift of the spirit from the families to a community hard-hit. I say at the ribbon cutting and at the ground breaking that we thank the families for lending the spirit of their child to the community.
And these young children literally are lifting these communities on their shoulders. We had the Union Beach build, for example, and we started to build, and that's a blue-collar community devastated by the storm. We had residents come up to us and say, you know, I didn't know whether I would rebuild my home, you know, I didn't know whether I was just going to leave.
And they said I saw this beautiful playground coming out of the ground, and it gave me hope that, you know, this town and this community is going to recover. So in a very real way, children and teachers who left us far too soon are going to be remembered and celebrated for generations.
YOUNG: In fact I have before me a letter that's on the Sandy Ground Project website from the parents of Avielle Richmond, again her playground's going to be built on Friday in Belmar, New Jersey. They say that it took them a long time to even open your letter, but now this offer is singing to their spirits. And then they write how they want the kids in New Jersey to use the playground in honor of their daughter who was shot in Connecticut.
I'm not sure I can read it in its entirety, but we'll post it, as well, and we'll link to your website. But basically they want kids to look for fairies, laugh, climb a tree, play tag, blow dandelions. Is that what you hear from parents?
LAVIN: Absolutely, one family more remarkable than the next. Every time I think it can't get any better, or people can't show more courage, they do. I'm sitting, as you said, next to Carlos Soto, and Victoria was unquestionably the hero of Newtown, Connecticut, saving 17 children. And now I know where she gets it from.
Her dad has been a rock for us, giving back, traveling and building playgrounds in honor of other children and supporting us. So we're just blessed to be a part of it.
YOUNG: That's New Jersey firefighter Bill Lavin, founder of The Sandy Ground: Where Angels Play. They're building 26 playgrounds for the victims of the Sandy Hook school shooting in Superstorm Sandy-affected communities. We also spoke with Carlos Soto, who's now helping Bill, and his daughter Victoria one of the teachers killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Bill, Carlos, thank you so much. We'll let people know how they can participate.
SOTO: Thank you.
YOUNG: Just go to the website. You're listening to HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.