By Michelle Melnick, Producer, NBC News
ISLAND PARK, N.Y. -- A group of firefighters is making sure the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy are never forgotten by building playgrounds – 26 of them – each honoring a student or teacher who lost their life.
As they help Newtown families heal, they’re also helping communities rebuild -- because each will be in an area ravaged by Superstorm Sandy.
The idea of a playground "was more than just a structure or a place for kids to play on,” said New Jersey firefighter Capt. Bill Lavin and founder of The Sandy Ground: Where Angels Play. “It was a symbol of hope.”
To date there are 10 playgrounds across New Jersey, Connecticut and New York, all built by volunteers with donated equipment.
Last week, in Island Park, N.Y., dozens of professional firefighters, police officers, construction workers and community members spent the day building in honor of 6-year-old Caroline Previdi.
Lavin describes Caroline as a young girl who "liked the New York Yankees and liked the Giants. And liked the color pink.” He said she was a "very thoughtful, generous child -- so to imagine that Caroline will be watching over the kids that will play on this playground, and they will know the story of Caroline -- I think it's a wonderful story."
One of the volunteers helping construct Caroline’s playground was Carlos Soto, whose 27-year-old daughter Victoria died protecting her students at Sandy Hook.
"She was taken away too quick,” he said, with tears in his eyes. "But what she did, I will never forget. She saved 17 kids and gave her life.”
Soto remembers when President Obama came to Newtown after the tragedy to speak with victims’ family members .
"He [President Obama] goes, 'Carlos…What she did, my people are trained for. She was never trained. They go in front of me to take the bullet. She went in front of her kids to take the bullet for them.’"
Soto lives just a few blocks away from his daughter's park in Stratford, Conn., which was decorated in pink and green. They chose pink because she loved flamingos, and green because Christmas was her favorite holiday. He says spending time there helps him stay positive.
“I know that my daughter and her students are looking down at what we're doing," Soto said. "That's what makes me happy and proud."
The firefighters in the New Jersey Firefighters’ Mutual Benevolence Association, who are spearheading the project, have made Soto an honorary member. He describes them as part of his “new family,” along with others who lost loved ones on that tragic day in Newtown.
"Once you're a part of it, it's addicting,” said Rebecca Kowalski, whose 7-year-old son Chase Kowalski died in the elementary school massacre. “You get this great camaraderie feeling. You get this sense of, you know, I lost my son but I'm making a difference someplace else and people are honoring our son because of that."
She and her husband Stephen helped build a playground for Chase in New Jersey's Normandy Beach. Their son loved sports and finished his first triathlon when he was 6 years old, which is why on the day of the ribbon cutting, his sisters passed out 26 soccer balls to 26 children.
"They had a flag with Chase's name and the number eight for his baseball number…eight is just so appropriate. It was his baseball number but I take it to the next level and I look at the infinity sign and it makes the number 8, so that's our love," Rebecca said.
For Capt. Bill Lavin, the Sandy Ground Project is as much about resilience and rebuilding, as it is about healing.
“The amazing faith of these families, it’s really a privilege to work with them and have them – well, now I feel they’re my family. It’s just a blessing,” he said. "If we could give them a day or just a little window of hope and help them get through anybody's worst nightmare, it is something we'll never forget."
To learn more about the Sandy Ground Project, please visit their website.
First published October 9 2013, 6:08 PM