Six months after the school shooting in Newtown, 26 playgrounds are taking shape around the region, showcasing each of the victim's likes and interests — everything from the moon to flamingos.
The families of the 20 children and six educators killed inside Sandy Hook Elementary School have agreed to participate in the project, led by a New Jersey firefighters union. For some, it has been a welcome distraction from their grief as they prepare to mark half a year without their loved ones.
A forecast for heavy rain forced a one-day postponement in a ribbon-cutting that had been planned Friday at a playground dedicated to 6-year-old Dylan Hockley at Long Lots Elementary School in Westport. Ground also will be broken Saturday for a playground at a school in Stratford in honor of Vicki Soto, a 27-year-old first-grade teacher.
The playgrounds are the fourth and fifth being built as part of the Sandy Ground Project: Where Angels Play, an effort spearheaded by the Firefighters' Mutual Benevolent Association of New Jersey. Most are planned for communities in New Jersey, New York and Connecticut hit hard by Sandy, linking the two tragedies that have a name in common.
For Dylan's family, watching his 8-year-old brother Jake break a rare smile while helping to build the playground was comforting.
"Jake was right in there. He dug the first shovelful, and he was working in the Bobcat and was acting as the foreman, helping direct the team," Ian Hockley said. "I heard him tell a (television) station that this will honor Dylan. To be able to think about this project in that way, I think is very helpful to him."
The design of Dylan's purple playground features the moon and butterflies, two things he loved. Dylan, who had autism, liked to flap his arms and told his mother he was a butterfly. Educational signs will describe the stages of a butterfly's life, and it will incorporate big butterflies on poles and at the top of a slide, said Bill Lavin, president of the firefighters union. The symbol for autism awareness is also part of the design, Lavin said.
Soto's playground in Stratford, next door to Newtown, will be pink and have a flamingo theme.
"If Vicki could have had flamingos as a pet, I think she would have," said sister Jillian Soto, 24. "It's such a positive thing they are doing, they are bringing joy. My family is going to be there to help set this up and be a part of this."
Jillian Soto said her big sister's playground will be a fitting tribute to a woman who made children her life, and is more special because it will be built in their hometown, near the home of cousins who are 10, 5 and 3 years old and will be able to enjoy it.
The families of all 26 victims have agreed to be involved in the playgrounds' designs, Lavin said. Some have gotten involved in the construction, lifting beams and fastening bolts. Older siblings, like Jake, are made honorary foremen on the projects.
"It's been very cathartic for us, and the families feel the same way," Lavin said. "More than a few of the families have said they were offered gifts and money and cruises and other things, and not a lot of that made sense to them. This seemed appropriate to them."
Each playground takes about a week to build. They are all handicapped-accessible and have similar swings, slides, balance beams and monkey bars. But each also is being personalized for the child or educator it represents, using their favorite colors and something that made them unique.
Lavin said his group has raised about a third of the $3 million it needs to build all 26 playgrounds. Some of that has come from children, such as a seventh-grader who raised $100 selling wallets and purses she made from duct tape.
"That's what this project is all about," he said. "We do something for these families, they do something for the children, and the children learn from that and pass it forward."
Hockley said of the dozens of memorials and tributes to his son and the other Sandy Hook victims, this one is special. In part, he said it's because Lavin took the time to get their permission and showed a generous heart.
But it's more than that, he said.
Hockley said he and his wife used to take the children to different playgrounds when they moved to Connecticut and explored the area, watching as his sons found joy in a new slide or swing.
"Playgrounds are all about children — children having fun; children meeting each other in a safe place," he said. "Because it's at a school, you've got, guaranteed, 500 children ready and waiting to play on this thing."