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  • Retired NJ Firefighter Built 26 Playgrounds for Newtown Victims. Now His City Gets One, Too.
    Updated On: Jun 20, 2015
    Photo by: Katie Lannan.

    NJ.com - ELIZABETH - When Rebecca Kowalski heard about the plan to build a new playground on the city's waterfront, she cancelled a couple appointments, got in the car from her Newtown, Conn., home and drove down to help.

    Kowalski's 7-year-old son Chase was one of the 26 people killed in the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December 2012.

    A playground memorializing Chase opened in 2013 in Normandy Beach, one of 26 built throughout New Jersey, Connecticut and New York by the Where Angels Play Foundation.

    The group, founded by retired Elizabeth firefighter Bill Lavin, is now building its latest playground in Veterans Memorial Park, where it will honor first responders.

    Many of those working on the project Tuesday and Wednesday, like Kowalski, drove from Connecticut to lend a hand and return the generosity New Jersey volunteers had shown them.

    "You've never lived until you've been invited to be in a firefighter's group," Kowalski said. "It's the most amazing thing. Their lives are so different, and they're just so caring. When they embrace you into their family — holy cow. It's beyond amazing."

    She was involved in building each of the 18 playgrounds that came after her son's death and said the experience of giving back, when she didn't think she'd be able to, helped her heal. Now, Kowalski said, she and others want to pay it forward.

    With slides, ladders, climbing walls and other equipment in bright shades of red, yellow and blue, the playground also features toy replicas of police cars and fire trucks.

    A fire truck faces the New York City skyline, angled toward the Freedom Tower in homage to the work of local first responders, including Elizabeth firefighters, after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attack.

    New York Police Department boats will join a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the playground Saturday, Lavin said, from the water that the playground overlooks.

    In another show of support from first responders, many of the volunteers working in Elizabeth were Connecticut firefighters and state troopers, who also wanted to give back to those who had supported them.

    "As we were getting close to the completion of the project, not only the volunteers but the families felt they were getting so much out of it, that it was such a healing process, that they didn't want to stop," Lavin said. "This is the first of the next generation of playgrounds."

    After the Elizabeth project is complete, the group will next make trips to Massachusetts. They plan to construct a playground for Martin Richard, the 8-year-old boy killed in the April 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, and another in the Boston suburb of Wilmington, the hometown of Massachusetts Institute of Technology Police Officer Sean Collier, who was shot dead in his cruiser days after the attack.

    Where Angels Play will head to Mississippi for the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. There, they'll build in honor of the Bane family. Edgar and Christina Bane, and their two autistic teenage sons Edgar, Jr., and Carl, drowned in their home during storm.

    Lavin and other Elizabeth firefighters had traveled to the Gulf region after Katrina to rebuild playgrounds destroyed in the storm.

    "I hope we don't just build them in the wake of tragedies," Lavin said. "I hope someday we can build them just for the sake of supporting children."

    Elizabeth's new playground will formally open with a ribbon-cutting Saturday at 10:30 a.m., in the park near the intersection of Front Street and Elizabeth Avenue.

    For more about the Where Angels Play Foundation, visit their website or, from a mobile device, text the word "Angels" to 71777.

    This article appeared on NJ.com authored by Katie Lannan.

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