PARKLAND, FLA. - It all started with the 9/11 tragedy and the response has grown through events such as Hurricane Katrina, the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, Superstorm Sandy, and now the Feb. 14 shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland.
The Where Angels Play Foundation has constructed 48 playgrounds in the United States, Canada and most recently, Kibeho Rwanda, naming them in honor of children taken so tragically. A playground for Alyssa Alhadeff has been added to the list of playgrounds being built in memory of the Parkland victims.
"I got involved as a way to heal myself and to help others," William Lavin, a retired firefighter from Elizabeth, N.J. and founder of the organization, said. "It provided an opportunity to be a part of recovery, hope and something good in a world that seemed at times to be inundated with only sadness and tragedy. We have met with the Alhadeff family and are in the planning stages to build a playground for their daughter Alyssa, one of the victims of the Parkland shooting.
"Alyssa was a remarkable young lady who was loved by everyone she met. Loved soccer and family and friends were so important to her. We hope to have Alyssa’s personality and influence portrayed throughout a beautiful playscape to be enjoyed by children for generations. I marveled at the strength, grace and courage of Alyssa’s parents, brothers and grandparents. They are the salt of the earth and we looked forward to making some small difference in their lives as they continue on such a difficult journey. Alyssa Alhadeff will be responsible for the laughter of children once again."
Lavin said, "Our hope is to build for others as well, if they should want. We want the families impacted by tragedy and the greater Parkland community to know we love them and want to show it not just with words but rather by deeds and hard work. With the end result to provide their communities a place of joy and a place to honor and continue the memory and legacy of those taken from this physical life much to soon. It doesn’t mean, however, that these beautiful lives cannot continue to make a wonderful difference in the world."
That has been the message Lavin has been sending ever since he was first involved in responding to the 9/11 World Trade Center attack as a firefighter in Elizabeth, N.J. Third-graders from North Bay Elementary School in Mississippi sent letters and cards of support to the NJ Firefighters that were hung on the walls of the firehouses.
"In 2005, we were shocked to hear that Hurricane Katrina had destroyed the school of our young supporters," Lavin said. "In an attempt to return their kindness, the New Jersey Firefighters Benevolent Association (NJFMBA) collected $400,000 from its almost 5,000 members and donated that money to Save the Children, who in turn invited us to the Gulf Coast to witness first hand the devastation and the work they were able to do with our considerable donation.
"After touring the area, specifically Mississippi, we were inspired to build a playground for the children from North Bay Elementary School, as they had no place to play among the debris and rubble resulting from the storm. Three months later we were able to complete the first 100 percent handicapped accessible playground in the history of the State of Mississippi. We followed that with two subsequent playgrounds before returning to our lives back in NJ."
Seven years later, Superstorm Sandy hit New Jersey and the NJFMBA worked to restore homes for Garden State residents. But then news of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting came and Lavin turned his attention to another idea, focusing on the children.
"Struggling to make some sense of a world in chaos from both man-made and natural disasters we and I began to search for a way to make a difference," Lavin said. "Some days later, in an email video from our friends from Mississippi we got our answer. The children and teachers of North Bay Elementary School had decided to “pay it forward” to us, the New Jersey firefighters, in the form of a toy drive for the children of NJ so that they might have a better Christmas.
"This gesture gave me the crazy, beautiful idea for Where Angels Play. I thought, 'playgrounds is what we need to get back to and the joy we felt building them.' So the idea was to reach out to the families of Newtown and ask if they would trust us to build a playground to honor their Angel. A playground that would celebrate who they were and how they lived, rather than focus on the violent way they had been taken. So, one by one, we met with amazing families who were willing to lend the spirit of their Angel to a community that was hard hit by the storm, In this way we thought the community would be uplifted by the spirit of the child and the community could wrap its collective arms around the family in need of love, healing and maybe just maybe experience some joy back in their lives."
The result of this effort was that Where Angels Play was able to construct 26 playgrounds along the coast of New Jersey, New York and Connecticut.
"Each one built and designed by the families and constructed by volunteers, affectionately called the Angels Army," Lavin said. "The results and by-product of that have been nothing short of miraculous.
"Our message is of hope and healing. We hope to bring joy back into this community and let them know that people care and that we are with them. While we know it is impossible to change their reality, we attempt the impossible as a gesture of kindness and humanity to folks we don’t know but we hope they may benefit from the kind gestures of strangers. We believe there are far more good people in the world and try to show this by example."
Lavin said, "We were recently in town to meet with the great people of the Chabad of Parkland, Rabbi Gutnik and Rabbi Bison led a beautiful service allowing our story to be told to the congregation. We felt completely at home here in Parkland and look forward to a successful build perhaps early 2019!"
The approximate cost of each playground is $120,000 and people can support the foundation by going to the whereangelsplayfoundation.org and/or volunteering at the actual construction of these playgrounds.
People can also support the foundation with the purchase of the book, “Where Angels Live, Work and Play” from the website.
"This book, written by myself and my son Charles Lavin," Lavin said, "documents the remarkable journey set in motion by tragedy. It is a “triumph over tragedy” story for sure. Any proceeds from this book go directly into the WAP foundation."
Where Angels Play Foundation can also be reached by mail at:
Where Angels Play Foundation
158 Bucknell Avenue
Woodbridge, NJ 07095