Where Angels Play

Playground, rising from the storm, memorializes Sandy Hook victim

A rainbow shines through the gray above the Sandy Ground playground built on Penfield Beach in honor of Jessica Rekos, killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown. (Jen Smith Photo)

Firefighters and volunteers honored the memory of Jessica Rekos, killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, by building a playground in her honor at Penfield Beach. Karen Kovacs Dydzuhn Photo)

Volunteers place the poles that will become the tower at the Sandy Ground playground at Penfield Beach (Karen Kovacs Dydzuhn Photo)

A view from above at the Sandy Ground playground honoring Jessica Rekos. (Jen Smith Photo)

An expression of love from Jessica Rekos marks the playground built in her memory. (Karen Kovacs Dydzuhn Photo)

The Sandy Ground: Where Angels Play playground on Penfield Beach. (Jen Smith Photo)

Children climb Where Angels play, the Sandy Ground playground built at Penfield Beach in honor of Newtown victim Jessica Rekos. (Karen Kovacs Dydzuhn Photo)

Maitreya Fabbro, 9, and Kayleigh Johnson, 9, both of Fairfield, test the new Sandy Ground playground at Penfield Beach, built Sept. 13-14 by volunteers. (Karen Kovacs Dydzuhn Photo)

The sun sets on the new playground, built as part of Where Angels Play at Penfield Beach. (Jen Smith Photo)

Firefighters from Fairfield and New Jersey, together with police, first responders and neighbors of Penfield Beach, came together this week to build a playground in honor of Jessica Rekos, one of the 26 children and teachers killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 14, 2012.

Fairfield’s is the ninth playground built as part of the Sandy Ground: Where Angels Play project, founded by Bill Lavin, chairman of the New Jersey Firefighters Mutual Benevolent Association (NJFMBA). The $3-million initiative sends firefighters from New Jersey to areas affected by Hurricane Sandy and the Newtown school massacre in an effort to reignite hope and rebuild communities.

Fairfield was chosen as the ninth playground built this year because of the devastation suffered along the shoreline when Hurricane Sandy struck.

It was also chosen because Jessica’s mother, Krista Rekos, attended Fairfield University’s School of Nursing.

“Jessica was the heart of our family,” Krista Rekos said in a video of Saturday night’s dedication ceremony posted at thesandygroundproject.org. “One of the million things about her that I miss is the happiness she brought to our family. I miss her laughter, her jokes, her giggles and how much fun she thought life was. I’m so proud that from now on Jessica gets to bring the children who play on this playground some happiness too.”

Bob Smith Jr., president of the Fairfield Fire Fighters Association, said there was no question that Fairfield’s Bravest would participate in the Where Angels Play project when he received a call from Lavin last spring.

“When we get the opportunity to be part of something like this, we jump on it,” Smith said.

Smith pointed out that firefighters are always looking for ways to “give back” to their communities.

“This is how we get our healing,” he said. “It’s almost like therapy.”

Smith also said that when a fellow firefighter asks for help, it’s natural to say yes.

“It’s a unique type of family,” Smith said, “and, when one of our fellow brothers and sisters are hurt, we rally around them.”

Lavin agreed.

“People thank us for doing this and we feel we’re the ones who are blessed,” he said. “It’s a gift from the families to be able to do this in their children’s names. It’s cathartic for us because we, as firefighters, feel we’re supposed to keep kids safe, and we were unable to do that.”

On Friday morning, when construction began at Penfield Beach, the crew was comprised of 50 volunteers from Fairfield and 30 firefighters from New Jersey. The group from Connecticut included some Newtown parents.

Professionals from Giordano’s Construction of Brown’s Mills, N.J., led the operation. The company’s owners donate their labor costs for all of the Sandy Ground projects, Lavin said.

Many local businesses also made financial and in-kind donations to the Jessica Rekos Playground.

Jessica’s brother, Travis, 4, was the “foreman” of the project.

“The brothers and sisters are always part of the project,” Lavin said. “We tell them you’re the boss. We let them get on the machines and tell us what to do.”

Lavin said the sites for Sandy Ground projects are not chosen in “any kind of scientific way.” Playgrounds are typically built in towns on the New Jersey, New York or Connecticut coastline that had been hit hard by last year’s storms and one of the shooting victims had a special tie to the chosen community.

“These parks stand for hope and recovery,” Lavin said.

The Chase Kowalski Playground was recently constructed in Mantoloking, N.J., because Chase played there last year when the family was visiting their relatives.

“Some of his ashes are now there,” Lavin said.

New Jersey firefighters undertook similar work after Hurricane Katrina. Six months after the storm destroyed homes and schools in the South, Lavin and several other New Jersey firefighters traveled to Mississippi and built three playgrounds for the children. From that project, Where Angels Play was born.

After Hurricane Sandy hit last year, the NJFMBA was among the organizations providing volunteers to help rebuild the Jersey Shore.

While involved in the rebuilding, Lavin received a phone call from a Mississippi businessman saying that because of the firefighters’ kindness in building the playgrounds after Katrina, children at the Mississippi schools were collecting Christmas presents for children in New Jersey to “pay it forward,” Lavin said.

The Mississippi children’s generosity and positive attitude boosted the New Jersey firefighters’ morale.

Then came Dec. 14, 2012.

“After Newtown happened, the world came to a stop,” Lavin said. “It touched all of us.”

As so many people nationwide grappled with the horrific event, Lavin recalled the impact the playgrounds made in children’s lives down south.

Each of the playgrounds cost between $60,000 and $120,000. Funds are raised through private donations, special events sponsored by the NJFMBA and other organizations, even children’s lemonade stands. Donations may be made at thesandygroundproject.org.

On Sunday, only two days after construction began, Fairfield children were climbing, sliding and playing on the Jessica Rekos Playground.

Georgia Sayers and her daughter, Kayleigh Johnson, 9, invited Ann Taylor and her daughter, Maitreya Fabbro, 9, to join them at the playground.

“It’s really amazing,” said Taylor, looking at the 47-foot by 63-foot structure. Two slides and a climbing wall are found on the three towers. There are tunnels and places to hang off, and a wheel to “steer the ship.”

“It’s nice to see all of the kids playing on it,” said Taylor. “You feel like it keeps Jessica’s spirit alive.”

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