LAVALLETTE, NJ — Firefighters from across the state are helping to keep a Livingston teen’s name alive through a memorial playground currently being built in Lavallette—the Jersey Shore town where Brendan Tevlin spent every summer of his 19 years.
After members of the New Jersey Firefighters’ Mutual Benevolent Association (FMBA) helped build playgrounds in communities affected by Hurricane Katrina, then-FMBA President Bill Lavin formulated a mission to build 26 playgrounds in communities affected by Hurricane Sandy in honor of each victim lost in the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. The Where Angels Play Foundation was born, and has since traveled across the country, as well as to Canada and Africa, to build playgrounds in the wake of tragedies.
The building of Tevlin’s playground, located only a short walk away from his grandparents’ vacation home, is particularly special for the FMBA members involved, as Tom Tevlin, Brendan’s grandfather, is a former lieutenant of the Maplewood Fire Department and was heavily involved in the FMBA.
“What can you do, what can you say to someone who’s had such a tragic loss like when Brendan was taken,” said Lavin, a retired member of the Elizabeth Fire Department and a good friend of Tom’s. “This is our way of saying, ‘Hey, we love you.’ We have hundreds of firefighters from all over the state, and it’s our blessing to do it.”
Brendan was fatally shot in July of 2014 while driving home from West Orange after a summer night spent with friends. The Seton Hall Prep graduate was at a stoplight when he was gunned down by Ali Muhammad Brown, who is now serving a life sentence with no possibility of parole.
Active and retired firefighters from West Orange, Maplewood, South Orange, Orange, Irvington, Kearny, Elizabeth and beyond joined more than 100 people in Lavallette on Wednesday to begin the construction of Brendan’s playground.
The memorial park was designed with Brendan’s personality in mind: his favorite colors, his love of the surf and his love of athletics. As Lavallette was Brendan’s favorite place in the world, all those involved agreed that it would be the most appropriate location to build.
According to Lavin, the Lavallette community was thrilled to accept this gift from Brendan, and he expressed his confidence that the community would “cherish it a treat it like sacred ground.”
“It really reflects his personality and it’s very personal,” said Lavin. “It allows [the family] to come to a place for a holiday or a birthday, or maybe instead of going to church or to a monument, they go to a playground—a really happy place where kids are joyful. The idea is that Brendan will be watching over these children. It’s a gift from him.”
Lavin said that when the FMBA members helped out with the playgrounds in Mississippi following Hurricane Katrina, they quickly discovered that the playgrounds were “more than just a structure for kids to play on.” They were a symbol of hope and recovery, and a place where they could “honor the angels.”
After the Newtown shooting, the “Sandy Ground Project” was completed in only 18 months. Lavin said he thought the project would come to an end once the 26 playgrounds were installed, but the Newtown families “felt so much healing that they wanted other families to experience the same thing.”
Those same families have since helped to continue the initiative of the Where Angels Play Foundation, which has now built playgrounds across the country, and even at a school in Kibeho, Rwanda.
“It’s just something that evolved,” said Lavin. “I don’t know if I really thought this thing out, it just kind of came together, but it’s become a really beautiful symbol of hope, recovery and triumph over tragedy. Even though Brendan only lived to be 19 years old, our hope is that generations of children will know his name.”
Lavin also spoke of some of the “hidden little blessings” that come from these projects. Including, on a personal level, spending more time with his own family—such as his daughter, Mary Kate, who is now the chief executive officer of the organization and brought her infant son along to help out on Wednesday morning.
“People thank us, but the truth is it’s the most selfish thing that I’ve ever done,” said Lavin. “I had forgotten what my mother used to tell me. She said if I threw my problems into a pile with everyone else’s, I would fight to get mine back. I never really had a problem of any great significance, but I never really realized that until all of these tragedies happened.”
Brendan’s family, including his parents, Mike and Allison, his brother, Sean, as well as countless cousins, aunts and uncles, former classmates and more came out in spades during the week to be a part of the building process. But it was the brotherhood among the many different fire departments that shone through as they all worked in unison to bring the vision to fruition.
“What attracted me to the job to begin with was the brotherhood, and then to see all those people come out yesterday was heartwarming,” said Livingston resident Joe Callaghan, Brendan’s uncle and a former deputy chief of the Maplewood Fire Department.
For the firefighters, Lavin said building these playgrounds is a one-of-a-kind experience.
“The Tevlin family is our family, but because we’re firefighters and we respond to tragedies all the time, this is a really cool, cathartic thing,” he said. “And for those of us that are into retirement, it allows us to get together and have a drink and a joke and all laugh together. It’s the firehouse without the fires.”
The playground was still being built as of Thursday afternoon and is expected to be completed by the end of the week.