CLARK, NJ – At the township’s new playground, Caitlin Nelson’s memory lives on.
“I know that Caitlin is smiling down today, at the thought of the playground in her name, where children can have fun in a safe, inclusive setting,” said Anne Nelson, Caitlin’s sister, during the playground’s opening ceremony on Saturday. “She would also be pleased about the sense of community and togetherness this playground already has. Enjoy this gift to you, and show each other love and kindness. Caitlin and my father would have wanted that.”
The playground honors Caitlin Nelson, a longtime Clark resident who died in 2017. It also honors her father, Jim Nelson, who was a Port Authority Police Officer and the only Clark resident to die in the September 11, 2001 World Trade Center attacks.
The Where Angels Play Foundation built the new playground along with volunteers and support from the community. Anne Nelson first contacted the organization in 2017, and praised their work during the ceremony.
“The ‘Angel’s Army’ is proof that there is more good than evil in this world, and something beautiful can come from tragedies,” she said.
Anne also shared how working on the playground helped her process her grief.
“I had the opportunity to assist in building the playground, and it was a humbling experience,” she said. “It has really been an effective way of channeling grief into something positive.”
Along with hundreds of friends, family, and community members, several township and county officials also attended the ceremony. Mayor Sal Bonaccorso and Freeholder Sergio Granados spoke about how the playground will honor Caitlin and Jim Nelson.
“This park will be here for a long, long time. And we’ll remember them each and every day,” Bonaccorso said. “Let’s remember who this is about, and what great organization made it happen.”
“With each child that enters this playground, we will be honoring their memory,” Granados said.
Who was Caitlin Nelson?
Caitlin Nelson died at age 20 on April 2, 2017 following an eating contest at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Connecticut.
“She was a selfless, loving, wise, and warm-hearted woman. She saw life as an opportunity to assist those in need,” Anne Nelson said of her sister. “Caitlin treated each and every person with respect, never failing to put a smile on someone’s face.”
Caitlin, who graduated from Arthur L. Johnson High School in 2014, was five years old when her father died in 2001. She was active with “America’s Camp,” a retreat for children who lost a parent in the attacks.
“When we were younger, Caitlin and I attended America’s Camp together,” Anne said, with her mother Rosanne at her side. “It was a place where we were truly able to truly be kids without worrying about the label of being a 9/11 kid. Despite her own loss as a five-year-old, Caitlin turned grief into something positive.”
In a letter to herself, read aloud by her sister Anne, Caitlin wrote about what her time at America’s Camp meant to her.
“‘I learned that even with Pandora’s evils in the world, the good is there, if you light a candle and not curse the darkness,’” she wrote.
Caitlin also volunteered with the Resiliency Center of Newtown, an organization created after the Sandy Hook Elementary School Shooting. She spoke about this work at the township’s annual 9/11 memorial service in September 2016.
“It’s about positive change,” Caitlin said at the time. “It’s about healing and helping. It’s about paying it forward.”
How Caitlin’s Legacy Lives On
“I hope that you can feel Caitlin and my dad’s spirit here today reflected in the colors, panels, and accents on the playground,” Anne Nelson said. As Anne explained, Caitlin continues to make a difference in other ways.
“Her aim in life was to pay it forward and spread love wherever she went,” Anne said. “As an ultimate act of paying it forward, Caitlin selflessly donated her organs, tissue, and bone, saving over 250 lives.”
“It is only fitting that she will continue to positively impact others long after her life has ended,” she added. “Caitlin’s spirit will live on through her gifts and through this playground.”
One donor recipient spoke during the ceremony.
“The Nelson family are the most selfless people I know, and I pray for them every day to stay strong,” she said. “As we honor them today, and every day, let’s all continue to inspire others, just like Caitlin and Jimmy did.”
Another donor recipient wrote a letter to the Nelson family upon finding out he would be having a daughter.
“I want to share with you, the joy that my family and I feel, that a beautiful princess is coming to this world,” he wrote. “With due respect to you, she will be named Caitlin.”
After the ceremony, attendees mingled while children discovered new territory and played together. The Clark Fire Department cooked for the crowd with food donated by Frank Juba of Shoprite.
How was the playground constructed?
The playground is the 51st playground to be built by the Where Angels Play Foundation.
The foundation began as an initiative to build 26 playgrounds in honor of the 26 victims in the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School Shooting, according to the foundation’s website. The foundation has since built 51 playgrounds in Connecticut, New Jersey, and other states and countries.
Construction on the playground began in March and was completed this month ahead of Saturday’s ribbon-cutting ceremony. The organization and township officials sought donations from businesses and the public to finance the construction.
The playground is located at 430 Westfield Ave, near the township’s municipal building. It replaces the previous playground Fun Time Junction, which has been relocated to Arecibo, Puerto Rico.
“There are young Puerto Rican boys and girls, and men and women, who have never seen a playground ever before in their life, who are playing on that playground,” said Bill Lavin, the foundation’s founder. “Caitlin did that. Jim did that. And all the other angels that they worked together with did that.”
To make a donation to the Where Angels Play Foundation, visit their website.