The Story of the Sandy Ground Project

First 9/11, followed by two devastating storms – Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy – and then there was the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School. These seemingly unrelated catastrophic events, both natural and man-made, became a call to action for Bill Lavin, former president of the New Jersey Firefighters’ Mutual Benevolent Association and Captain of the Elizabeth New Jersey Fire Department.

Along with his fellow firefighters, family and friends, Lavin founded the Where Angels Play Foundation, an organization dedicated to respond to both the devastation along the East Coast from Superstorm Sandy and the senseless violence wrought against children and their teachers at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT.

Working with dozens of fire and police departments in the tristate area, small businesses, local unions, elected officials, town and city authorities, and most importantly, the families of those lost at the Sandy Hook tragedy, Lavin and his team set out to build 26 playgrounds in 26 storm-ravaged communities to honor the spirit, personality, and character of each of the 26 “Angels” whose lives were cut short on December 14, 2012.

Lavin chronicles the experience – including the many “miracles” he and his team encountered along the way – in a new book “Where Angels Live Work and Play: The Story of the Sandy Ground Project, published to coincide with the four year anniversary of the horrific tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

“If you asked yourself what these four events have in common, you would quickly think of death, destruction, chaos, and desperation. We founded the Where Angels Play Foundation and Sandy Ground Project to create joyful places to play, provide hope, recovery, and a return to family values in the wake of tragedy to honor these children, teachers, and first responders,” says Lavin. “The book shares our incredible journey building each playground, the wonderful communities, and the mini-miracles that happened along the way — like a rainbow replacing a storm at an unveiling — to make it all possible.”

For Lavin and the Angels’ Army as they would come to be known, the mission was simple:

While each town and state recovered and rebuilt after the devastation of Sandy, the littlest victims of the storm – the children – were surrounded by the wreckage. In order to laugh, to play, to be outside and have fun together, they need an oasis… in the form of a playground.  

Couple this with the man-made disaster at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.  Twenty-six beautiful, vibrant, unique lives taken much too soon.  Twenty-six families left broken, devastated, incomplete, and facing a lifetime of wondering why.   

These families needed a place to celebrate how their loved one lived instead of a reminder of how they died.  A place that will generate smiles instead of tears.

And so they were off…

“Where Angels Live Work and Play: The Story of the Sandy Ground Project” details the builds of the 26 playgrounds, built in the storm-damaged towns with the greatest need, and each one in honor of one of the 26 angels of Newtown.  Each playground, with the cooperation of, and collaboration with, the victim’s family – is created in their image.  Their favorite color, or animal, or sports team, or superhero – any and all of it integrated onto the customized playground structure.  It becomes a place celebrating their spirit, and a place cherished by the community.  

The playgrounds were constructed along the coast of three states and built by firefighters, police officers, teachers, school administrators and community volunteers. In many cases, a sibling or student of one of the Angels was designated as Honorary Foreman to make sure the operation went according to plan.

All proceeds raised from the sale of the book, will go towards the Foundation’s mission to build playgrounds in needy communities across the country and name each in memory of a victim of horrific violence or terminal illness. Since completing The Sandy Ground Project, the Where Angels Play Foundation has built playgrounds in Mississippi, Massachusetts and New Jersey – 39 in all — and continues to spread the mission of honor and healing.

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