CLARK, NJ - Bill Lavin of the Where Angels Play Foundation appeared in front of the Clark Council on November 20 to propose the construction of a playground in Clark. Not just any park, and not just to give kids a place to play, but to honor the memory of James A. Nelson and his daughter Caitlin Nelson.
The story of the Where Angels Play Foundation began on September 11, 2001. During the tragic attacks that day, 2,975 lives were lost, including hundreds of first responders who selflessly rushed to help. One of those first responders was Clark’s own James A. Nelson, a Port Authority Police Officer.
Bill Lavin, was president of the New Jersey State Firefighters’ Mutual Benevolent Association at the time or the attacks. He struggled personally as he and his community of fire responders dealt with the aftershocks of loss.
A firefighter’s niece in Mississippi had her third-grade students reach out with cards and letters in hopes of lifting their spirits. “We hung those up on our wall to cheer us up and get us through the worst tragedy of our lifetime,” said Lavin.
Four and a half years later that same school was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. “When I visited them six months after the storm, it looked like it had happened yesterday,” said Lavin. He felt drawn to do something for these children and so he rallied himself and many others and built those children a new area to play. “We raised about $400K with our group from the FMBLA … that was our first playground.” Where Angels Play hadn’t been given it’s name formally yet, but their work had begun.
Then in late October 2012, Hurricane Sandy hit the coasts of New Jersey, New York, and Conneticut destroying towns along the way. Again, Lavin and his team began to “feel a bit sorry for ourselves.” Less than 2 months later, 20 children and 6 educators of Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT were killed in a mass shooting.
“As we were trying to figure out what we could possibly do to make a difference in the lives of these families, I received, from Mississippi once again, a video,” said Lavin. The kids who they had built a playground for after Hurricane Katrina wanted to pay it forward for New Jersey firefighters.
“I got this crazy, beautiful idea to build a playground for each one of the Sandy Hook Elementary School children and their teachers. And we would build them in areas along the coasts that were hard hit by the storm,” said Lavin. “The spirit of their child would live through community. They would celebrate their lives not how they left us but rather how they lived.”
Where Angels Play raised almost $3 million and built 26 playgrounds in 19 months along the coast of all three of these states hardest hit by Sandy. Each playground was personalized to the individual, taking into consideration their favorite color, food, animal and more.
“Those families healed significantly. And they would tell you that they love the playground for their angel but love even more how it pays it forward to other families. They didn’t want us to stop,” said Lavin. “Today I am happy to tell you that we’ve completed 46 playgrounds all across the country.”
Lavin came to Clark’s council meeting on Monday because Where Angels Play wants to pay it forward in memory of not only James Nelson, but his daughter Caitlin Nelson who died earlier this year. The Port Authority reached out with the idea after Caitlin’s passing.
“We thought we’d reach out to the family and give it some time,” said Lavin. “Ironically, we have a playground in Tinton Falls and Anne, Caitlin’s sister, happened to be walking past the playground. Before we even reached out [to the Nelson family] they reached out to us.”
“There is an incredible connection between the Nelson family and Where Angels Play,” said Lavin. Caitlin was active with America’s Camp, a retreat for children who lost a parent in the attacks, as well as Camp Sea Stars North and the Resiliency Center of Newtown, CT. “The families of the angels from Sandy Hook actually have a strong connection to her and are excited about coming here and helping us build a playground.”
“This is not my project. It’s really Caitlin and Jim’s gift. And it’s the Nelson family project. The family will design it… we simply provide the manpower. We take it upon ourselves to raise the money,” said Lavin.
The Nelson family was in the audience at the Clark Council meeting and Lavin thanked them for entrusting him with presenting this idea to township officials.
“Our goal is to keep both Jim and Caitlin’s legacy alive … with her work and advocacy for children, what better way than to build a playground in her name so that for generations she will be remembered here.”
Lavin said the playground construction would likely begin in the spring of 2019 if approved giving time to raise funds and design the playground with the family.
The council passed a resolution at the meeting for a grant submission for the Union County Level the Playing Field. Business Administrator John Laezza said this resolution would begin raising funds for Where Angels Play. “We think the project is going to cost about $300,000. We think we have a location. We have to make sure that the Nelson family is comfortable with that location.”
“The people on this council want to see this happen and will assist you along the way along with myself,” said Mayor Sal Bonaccorso. “This is a great community. You will see the love pour out in this project, especially for Caitlin and Jim because they were great citizens of this community.”
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