“Act as if what you do makes a difference. It does.” – William James.
Difficult times can take a toll on our spirit and our soul. They test our strength and faith and cause us to question why. They can also lead to something beautiful, creating communities and connections and inspiring acts of love and compassion.
The State of Connecticut in the U.S. became unsettlingly familiar with adversity in late 2012. First, it was ravaged by one of the most destructive storms in the country’s history – Hurricane Sandy. Then a mere two months later, the tight-knit community of Newtown was rocked by an unthinkable event.
On the 14th of December, news stations worldwide reported on the Sandy Hook School Shooting, an event that claimed the lives of 20 children aged between six and seven years old, along with those of six adults. The loss of such young and vulnerable lives shook the Newtown community to its core. The pain was palpable and the whole country’s – and, indeed, the world’s – hearts and minds were with the families of those at the school.
Where Angels Play
Firefighter Bill Lavin remembers well the day he heard about Sandy Hook. Immersed in the politics of his job, he says his life had become miserable; on that day he had been feeling particularly sorry for himself.
While staring at the headlines, his mother’s words floated through his mind: “Bill, if you threw all of your problems into a pile, you would fight to get yours back.” Bill knew this was his calling; that he had to do something to make a difference. Yet, what could he do to make a real impact?
Seven years prior, The New Jersey State Firefighters’ Mutual Benevolent Association – an organization of which Bill was President – built playgrounds for communities impacted by Hurricane Katrina. Bill describes this as ‘paying it forward’ for all the support firefighters received from children in the wake of 9/11.
Through building these playgrounds, Bill saw firsthand how creating such communal spaces could bring people together to begin to heal. He had also developed some essential skills, knowledge, and contacts.
The idea came to him after seeing a video of kids in Mississippi benefitting from the playgrounds built after Hurricane Katrina. He realized he could help heal the communities affected by both recent events. Bill committed to leading a team to build 26 playgrounds in areas affected by Hurricane Sandy. Each playground would pay tribute to the life of an angel.
“I thought maybe I could reach out to the families of Sandy Hook,” Bill recalls, “to not only build a playground in honour of their [loved one], but to…celebrate how they lived.”
So began the story of the Where Angels Play Foundation. They broke ground on the first playground on March 1, 2013, in Sea Bright, New Jersey – the storm’s epicentre. It was built in honour of Ann Marie Murphy, a special education teacher who died trying to protect one of the children.
Celebrating the Individual
All too often, memorials focus on an individual’s last moments or the story that arose as a result. These playgrounds, however, capture the personality and flair of those they celebrate. For example, if the person loved soccer or purple, this is featured in the design. The playgrounds take their joys, loves, and lives and share them with the community.
“Never in a million years did I think all of the families from Sandy Hook would trust a total stranger to honour their angels,” Bill says. Yet, the families welcomed the project with open arms. Perhaps this is because the playgrounds truly celebrate the individual’s energy and spirit, keeping it alive for years to come.
One of the first playgrounds the Foundation built was in honour of Dylan Hockley. According to Dylan’s father, this space is more than just a memorial to his son; it is a place where he can feel his presence.
On Dylan’s birthday – about six months after the completion of the playground – his father contacted Bill:
‘I didn’t know whether to go to church, or the cemetery, or mass or what to do. Instead, I went to the playground, and when I went there, there were 30-plus children laughing, and it was joy. And I felt my son there. Thank you for giving me a place to go on this special day where I really felt Dylan.’”
Healing Through Healing
“We’re not going to take away the grief, which is every day, every second of every waking moment”, Bill says. “Some of these losses are just so heart-wrenching, but as one mom said, ‘the fact that complete strangers will try to make a difference in my existence allows me to get up every morning and put one foot in front of the other’. It helps these families believe that there’s more good in the world than evil.”
For each playground, the family is always put first, and they vet all decisions. This process gives them complete control and can often help them begin to heal. It also allows them to engage with other families who have gone through similar things and provides a real sense of understanding and togetherness.
Finding Purpose and Joy Through Helping Others
Before Where Angels Play, Bill says he viewed his life as beautiful and blessed “I had a beautiful family, three beautiful children, a beautiful wife. I’m one of 11 children. I had the best parents in the world. I had a great job. I had a great home”. Sure, he had to deal with all of the usual inconveniences, but nothing too serious. Not anything as challenging as what so many families have to go through. What Bill didn’t realize until later was was that his life priorities were not truly serving him, he had the trappings of a great life but hollowed out by a lack of purpose.
The events of December 14, 2012, provided the change of perspective that Bill needed, spurring the revitalization of his spirit. After building the first playground, Bill felt validation that he was now on the right path. “It felt different to spending all my days trying to argue with the governor. That job needs to be done by somebody – the fire service needs a champion – but this is what I wanted to be doing”.
The changes within Bill were evident to all those around him. His firefighter colleagues, who Bill says had known him only as a “bang the gavel, rough and tumble labour leader” later confided that they thought he had ‘completely lost his mind’. “It changed me,” Bill says earnestly.
The alchemy of Bill’s family, the build teams, and Sandy Hook families coming together started a magical growth of love-in-action. “We knew then that we were onto something,” Bill recalls.
Since its conception, the Foundation has become a real family affair, with Bill’s daughter, MaryKate, playing a pivotal role in coordinating the projects.
“The work is the family, and the family is the work” MaryKate explains. “My mom, she’s retired, she doesn’t technically work for the Foundation, but she does so much for it and so much for us. Even our extended family, my cousins, our aunts, and uncles, everybody’s on the playground working. Or if they can’t be, they’re at the ribbon-cutting, or they’re sending a donation – it’s just become one and the same.”
Where Angels Play is so central to the Levin family that MaryKate’s husband proposed during a playground build. “He recognized how sacred a place the playgrounds have become to me”, MaryKate muses. “Since then, I’ve had two kids of my own and have seen the other side of it – the importance of getting out and playing. Getting to see them play on the playgrounds that were, at one point, just their Pop’s idea is really special. It’s going to be cool when they’re old enough to realize that.”
The Dream Continues
All of the initial 26 playgrounds have now been built and bring joy every day to their communities. The Foundation currently has 57 playgrounds under its belt after extending its love to communities across six states, in Canada and Rwanda.
Those who have been honoured now range from victims of the Boston Marathon bombing to those who have lost their battles with cancer. And the Foundation is continuing to expand, spreading healing love whenever they can.
Grieving families are experiencing this love in their communities. Kids in disadvantaged areas are rejoicing in new playgrounds, and a sense of oneness is coming to areas where the angel’s touch.
“There’s a playground a family has told me was a desolate area. It was a park that nobody came to, and now it’s become the centre of their community. And they have bands that play there, and it just revitalizes it,” Bill says. Other playgrounds have also become the epicentre of communities, getting decorated for Christmas, Easter, and other important dates for that community.
While some say Bill and his team are heroes who bring joy and love-in-action whenever they go, Bill says the playgrounds are not from them.
“It’s a gift from the Angel.”
Find out more about Where Angels Play and the communities they have helped.
READ NEXT: The story of Scarlett Lewis, the mother of one of Sandy Hook angels.