Giving Back

Retired Firefighter Shares Journey of Building Playgrounds in the Wake of Tragedy

Bill Lavin, center, stands with his brother Patrick Lavin while speaking with a woman at the Elizabeth Main Branch Library after telling the story of his foundation. Credits: Rebecca Panico
A Powerpoint slide shows the Elizabeth playground that Bill Lavin's foundation, Where Angels Play, built in 2015. Credits: Rebecca Panico
Bill Lavin, a former Elizabeth firefighter, spoke Wednesday at the Elizabeth Main Branch Library to tell the story of his foundation, Where Angels Play. Credits: Rebecca Panico
Elizabeth Senior Librarian Nancy Berkenfeld introduces Bill Lavin on Wednesday at the Main Branch Library. Credits: Rebecca Panico
A Powerpoint presentation shows one of the playgrounds that the Where Angels Play Foundation built. Credits: Rebecca Panico

ELIZABETH, NJ - A retired Elizabeth firefighter who experienced kindness from school children in Mississippi paid it forward in a big way: by building 26 playgrounds dedicated to Sandy Hook shooting victims.

Bill Lavin, former Firefighters’ Mutual Benevolent Association president, spoke at the Elizabeth Main Branch Library last Wednesday to tell the story of his non-profit charitable organization, known as the Where Angels Play Foundation.

The foundation has ballooned today, with volunteers building playgrounds in about six states -- including one in Elizabeth -- dedicated to people who have died.  Lavin would write a book with his son documenting the foundation’s work, making sure proceeds go back to building playgrounds.

Sign Up for E-News

“The story is based on a tragic attack with terrorists, two hurricanes and a tragic shooting,” Lavin said of the book, which was released in 2016. “And you think it would be a sad book, but it's really a triumph over tragedy.”

The catalyst for the project started when he and other Elizabeth firefighters received letters from students in Mississippi in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. But devastation would hit that school a few years later.

“Four-and-a-half years later after I got those cards and letters from Mississippi, there was a storm called Hurricane Katrina,” Lavin said. “Believe it or not, the very school where those children sent us those cards and letters was completely destroyed.”

He and other firefighters raised about $400,000 to donate to the school which was affected by the 2005 hurricane. But when Lavin visited the school six months after Hurricane Katrina hit, “it looked like the storm had happened yesterday."

Teachers in Mississippi told him the students had nowhere to play. So Lavin got a group of firefighters and policemen to build the school a playground.  

That was just the beginning.

When Hurricane Sandy hit along the East Coast in 2012, that same Mississippi school decided to help out again. They sent firefighters in New Jersey Christmas gifts which they delivered to children who were affected by the superstorm.

It was that school’s double-dose of empathy that Lavin used as inspiration to create the foundation and build the first 26 playgrounds in the memory of Sandy Hook shooting victims.

"We would honor their children and celebrate how they lived, and not how they necessarily died,” Lavin said. “Whether it was flamingos or chocolate or princesses or puppy dogs, we incorporated that with the playgrounds."

The Where Angels Play Foundation is a family affair. Lavin’s daughter, Mary Kate Herbert, manages the foundation, and his brother, retired Elizabeth Police Officer Patrick Lavin, is a volunteer builder.

“It makes us all feel like, ‘Wow how good is this,’" Pat Lavin said. “A tragedy or someone’s death or illness...and here we go and we make something positive. And it’s all with donations.”

A playground at Veteran’s Memorial Park in Elizabeth was opened in 2015, which features a replica of a fire truck angled toward the Freedom Tower to honor local 9/11 first responders.

The former firefighter was invited to speak at the library about his journey because it tied in with the theme of this summer’s reading list, which is building a better world, said Senior Librarian Nancy Berkenfeld.

The foundation plans to head to Lake Wallenpaupack, Pa. in September and Rwanda in November to build playgrounds there. To learn how to volunteer or donate, visit whereangelsplayfoundation.org.

TAPintoElizabeth.net is Elizabeth’s free daily news source. Sign up for our daily eNews and follow us on Facebook at and Twitter @TAPElizabeth.

Download the TAPinto App!  Click here for Android.  Click here for iOS.

TAP Into Another Town's News:

You May Also Be Interested In

Sign Up for E-News

Elizabeth

Upcoming Events

Carousel_image_ec60039a423eee95393a_scan_0005

Sat, November 25, 10:00 AM

Roselle Park Knights of Columbus #3240 at the Church of the Assumption, Roselle Park

Blood Drive in Roselle Park

Sun, November 26, 3:00 PM

The Snyder Academy of Elizabethtown, Elizabeth

Actors Shakespeare Company presents A Christmas ...

Arts & Entertainment

Tue, November 28, 5:00 PM

Center for Hope Hospice, administration building, Scotch Plains

“VA Benefits for Long Term Care” -- CEU seminar ...

Health & Wellness Other

Local Humanitarians Partner with Community Food Bank of New Jersey to Distribute Turkeys to Those in Need in Elizabeth

November 20, 2017

ELIZABETH, NJ--When James Carey, the Director of Social Services for the Elizabethport Presbyterian Center Inc., received a phone call from the Community Food Bank of New Jersey informing him they were donating 200 turkeys to his agency, he replied, "I'm going to distribute the turkeys to all the parents and staff members at the Early Childhood School and whatever's left over, ...

Elizabeth Football and Cheer Program Seeks Community Support to Raise Funds for 2017 National Cheer & Dance Competition

ELIZABETH, NJ—A local, long-standing program in Elizabeth has the opportunity to compete in the 2017 National Cheer & Dance Competition in Orlando and they are seeking donations from the community to make it happen.

The Football and Cheer Program is a part of PAL (Police Athletic League). Elizabeth PAL was started in 1947 by a group of caring police officers that wanted to make a ...

Tree-Lighting Ceremony to Kick-Off Holiday Festivities -Santa Comes to Elizabeth

ELIZABETH, N.J.--It’s that time of the year, twinkling lights, festive decorations and a chance to visit with the most important guy in a red suit you’ll ever meet.

The Elizabeth Avenue Partnership (EAP) has announced the lineup of holiday events on Elizabeth Avenue this season starting with the Official Tree-Lighting Ceremony at Union Square Plaza on Tuesday, November 28 from ...

Learn How to Defend Against Cyber Bullies

Springfield, N.J.--With the continued rise of social media, an alarming number of children and teens are targets of online bullying. To learn more about cyberbullying tactics and how to fight back against them, parents and caregivers are invited to attend “Bullying & Our Children,” a free public discussion.

This special presentation will be held on Monday, November 27, from ...

Redesigned Elizabeth Train Station on Hold-Mayor Says Fire NJ Transit Executives

November 10, 2017

ELIZABETH, NJ—The Governor-Elect already has a decision to make on his first day in office.

Mayor J. Christian Bollwage is calling upon the Governor-Elect to remove the New Jersey Transit Executive Team of their positions and appoint pro-active, capable individuals, who are in favor of rail improvements. The Mayor has requested that this action be taken in response to New Jersey ...

Fanwood Police Officer with Law Enforcement Team in Puerto Rico Finds Misery and Optimism

November 11, 2017

FANWOOD, NJ -- Like many other visitors to post-hurricane Puerto Rico, Fanwood Police Officer Elliott Bernard says the images seen on TV and online simply don’t capture the enormity of the damage, even two months after the storm. Roads with giant fissures, downed utility poles, epic food and water shortages and the lack of power make day to day life exhausting.

“Every day, you ...

Greater Union County United Way Participates in Giving Tuesday Campaign

November 20, 2017

UNION COUNTY, NJ – On Tuesday, November 28, 2017, United Way of Greater Union County will participate in #GivingTuesday, a global day of giving that follows Thanksgiving, Black Friday and Cyber Monday, encouraging generosity and philanthropy around the world.

United Way of Greater Union County, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, focuses on providing critical resources to children and ...

The Two Family House by Lynda Cohen Loigman

The Two-Family House by Lynda Cohen Loigman (St. Martins Griffin, 2016)

 

Author Lynda Cohen Loigman states, “The Two-Family House is a story I thought about for at least ten years before I ever wrote a word. I spent countless hours over a full decade thinking about how Rose, Helen, Abe, and Mort would behave in difficult situations, and how they would feel when faced with ...