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.

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“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.

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