On a brisk fall afternoon in Watertown, Connecticut, more than a thousand people gathered Sunday for the opening of the 26th and final playground honoring the lives of those lost at Sandy Hook Elementary School nearly two years ago.
This last playground, dedicated to heroic Principal Dawn Lafferty Hochsprung, was the fulfillment of a movement started by retired firefighter Bill Lavin, who had the idea to build playgrounds for each of the 26 victims of the horrific Dec. 14, 2012, school shooting in Newton, Conn. — and do them in towns that were hit hard by Hurricane Sandy, which had hit the region hard two months earlier.
"I think, what the families — love most is it celebrates who these children were, who the teachers were, their favorite color," said Lavin. "It doesn't talk about how they left us and celebrate the day or the anniversary of that horrible shooting. But rather the color pink and purple, and butterflies."
So it wasn't difficult getting volunteers to work and donate supplies to the project, all he had to do was put the word out and they came from everywhere — from Kearny, New Jersey, to Bay Saint Louis, Mississippi, to Toronto, Canada.
And the relatives of each Sandy Hook victim get to work on the playground built for their family member. For the playground in Watertown, that meant Dawn’s daughters and grandchildren.
"For 27 years of my life, my mom wasn't just my mom. She was my best friend. She was my mentor. She was my hero,” said daughter Erica Smegielski at the ribbon-cutting ceremony on Sunday.
“She would be so incredibly proud of her grandchildren, and that they were the foremen, as Bill (Lavin) calls them,” Smegielski told NBC News. “And, I mean, they said from day one, ‘We want pirates and we want poodles.’ And they have their pirates and they have their poodles. Because Bill and his crew made that happen. And this really just explains who she was. She was full of love and life and happiness. And this is something that I don't think she could have done better herself."
At the ceremony, Lavin noted that the families had to have courage to participate in the “Where Angels Play” project.
"The heroes of this project are the moms and dads and wives and husbands of Sandy Hook who, while suffering maybe the worst tragedy imaginable, had the courage, strength and generosity of spirit to give to others," he said. "When you think of heroes, think of people who, while hurting themselves, pay it forward."
With that thought in mind, this will not be the last project built by the foundation. They plan to make their way around the country and bring joy to other families and communities who need it — working in places like Boston and Oklahoma.
"We will continue to build playgrounds together and help heal other families through whatever tragic losses that they've had to deal with," said Rebecca Kowalski, the mother of Sandy Hook victim Chase, 6, a Cub Scout who loved baseball. "It kind of makes your heart grow a little bit bigger with each one."