Sandy Ground/Where Angels Play volunteers build their 21st playground on Long Beach Island NJ

By Linda Reddington |


BRANT BEACH – A pastel-colored, multifaceted playground was completed last weekend by volunteers with the Sandy Shores/Where Angels Play Project.


It is the 21st playground to be built by the group in less than two years, and there are five more to go.


The project was the brainchild of Bill Lavin of the Elizabeth Fire Company. Lavin was among firefighters who went to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and offered their help. They ended up building three playgrounds in devastated areas of Louisiana and Missisippi. When superstorm Sandy hit the coast seven years later, it struck a chord.


Two months later, in Newtown, Connecticut, 20-year-old Adam Lanza went on a rampage at the Sandy Hook Elementary School and fatally shot 20 children and six teachers.


Lavin remembered the playgrounds he and others built after Katrina, and thought he could respond to two tragedies together by building playgrounds in towns that had lost playgrounds to Sandy and at the same time, dedicate each playground to the memory of a student or schoolteacher who had perished in the Newtown massacre.


He didn’t have much trouble enlisting volunteers, including some firefighters from Toronto who had worked on other projects with the Jersey firefighters.


The new playground in Long Beach Township is in memory of Lauren Rousseau.


Rousseau, a substitute teacher at the Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 14, 2012, was among those killed in the school shooting.


The Where Angels Play Foundation has been building playgrounds for each of the adults and children killed that day.


The playground was dedicated in a public ceremony at the Long Beach Township Bay Beach on Sunday morning.


Speaking at the dedication, Bill Lavin said, “All the families love the project. The idea is that these (the Sandy Hook School victims) are angels that are going to watch over the angels that are still here for generations.


“The families come and help us build it,” he said, adding a quote from his mother, “If you threw your problem into a pile, you’d fight to get yours back (when you see other people’s troubles).”


Bill Valentine, retired battalion chief of the North Hudson Fire Company, said, “There are people here from all over the state, mostly retired firefighters but there are some who are active, like George LeMoine from Trumbull, Connecticut. We had a larger crew that put this together – 100 to 150 people.”


True Vision Productions is making a documentary for the BBC, following some people in Newtown as they build their lives after the tragedy. The production company was at the dedication on Sunday.


Two scholarships have been established in Rousseau’s honor: One at Danbury High School in Connecticut, where Rousseau graduated in 2000. The scholarship will be given to a student who will attend her alma mater; and the other at the University of Bridgeport, Connecticut, where she was awarded her master’s degree and certification to teach in 2005, which will be a $500 scholarship given every semester.


Most of the volunteers arrived Thursday night. “That way they were able to start work at 8 in the morning. It’s been home central for the last four days. The town has been great to us. The police officers have been fantastic. It’s been a really, really good experience,” Valentine said.


On Friday, Boy Scouts from Troop 109 in New Egypt came down to help and clean up any debris.


Valentine said five more playgrounds are to be built. The next one will be started Wednesday in Ocean City.


“A lot of the police officers were here working. Local volunteers came in to help,” he said.


Connecticut State Police Trooper Nicole Vallieres, the liaison to the family the day the tragedy happened, came to the playground dedication with the family.


Lisa Benjamin, an art teacher for Ethel Jacobson School and Long Beach Island Grade School, put together a book of art from the young children in the two schools, including fingerprints from the children placed in purple hearts. Purple was Lauren’s favorite color.


Mayor Joseph Mancini welcomed the New Jersey Firemen’s Benevolent Association, firefighters from New Jersey, Connecticut and New York, the local Policemen’s Benevolent Associations 173 and 375, and public works, police and fire departments. Harvey Cedars and Beach Haven volunteer fire companies sent equipment, with Harvey Cedars displaying a large American flag.


“Quite frankly, the group that came in and built it was fantastic,” Mancini said. “We’re donating $30,000 to the Where Angels Play Foundation so hopefully they can use this money on the next playground.”


The firemen with the organization presented a construction helmet to Evelyn Baumgardner, Lauren’s grandmother. “When we started this, she didn’t think she could do anything. So we put her in charge of the whole project,” Lavin said.


Mancini gave Lauren’s mom and dad beach badges in the hope that they would come back to Long Beach Island.


Lauren’s mother said that when Lauren was very young, and she was nervous to go to school, she was given a penny to hold on to. “We’ll listen to a song, ‘Any Lucky Penny,’ a favorite of Lauren’s,” her mother said. Lucky pennies were distributed to the crowd. Her mother then told the audience that people who received pennies dated 1982 received a penny minted the year Lauren was born.


Lavin said a firefighter’s daughter had an idea. She told her mom that her favorite movie is “It’s A Wonderful Life.’’ “I remembered every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings,” Lavin said. “We traced down a bell company to make a similar bell that was in the movie and it turned out that the company we contacted was the same one that made the bell in the film.’’ Lavin presented miniature versions of the bells to Lauren’s brothers: Matthew Rousseau, born in 1985, and Andrew Rousseau, born in 1989.


Teresa Rousseau has written about her daughter online at


“That’s my legacy for her,’’ her mother said.


“We’re very grateful to your community to do this for us,” said Lauren’s father, Bill Leukhardt. He then lightened the mood by saying, “We have our beach badges so we’re ready to come back.”


One of the volunteers, Kevin Kennedy, a resident of South Hackensack, did not go to the dedication on Sunday. “I can’t do it,” he said Saturday. “I’m a big baby. I’d be in tears.’’


Kennedy is not a firefighter, but he made good friends with some who came to his neighborhood after superstorm Sandy. Jersey Shore residents weren’t the only homeowners to have their homes damaged by the storm. Kennedy’s first floor was filled with water from the Hackensack River, as were those throughout the area.


He soon found himself on the Sandy Ground Project team, going from fundraiser to fundraiser, building one playground after another.


Like other project volunteers, he knows the story of every Sandy Hook School “angel” by heart, and how each playground incorporated elements from that victim’s life and memory.


Each playground has an American flag stand, set into a concrete base, in which family members of the deceased were invited to leave handprints or other mementos.


Each playground also has a bell for children to ring.


Kennedy’s wife, Debbie, had one of the miniature versions of the bell, made by that same company. On the bell is inscribed “Sandy Ground Project” and “Where Angels Play.” Each bell has the number 26 on it for the 26 massacre victims, with a halo over the number. The little bells are sold, along with T-shirts, as fundraisers for the projects.


“The materials for each of the playgrounds cost about $80,000,” Kennedy said, adding that many of the supplies – and expertise – are donated, including that of Rich Giordano, a contractor from the Elizabeth area, who likes to put in the first pole.


“The guy has amazing patience. At one site, he was having trouble centering the pole, and was getting all frustrated. But when a little kid came up and asked him what he was doing, he explained the problem and allowed the child to ‘help’ steady the pole while he put it in place.”


Not only do area residents show up to help each time a playground is built; food for the workers always is volunteered as well.


“People just show up with bottles of water, pizzas, doughnuts,” Kennedy said. This week, donated items were given by Wawa, “and a guy named Smokey pulled up with a van, got out a grill and started a pig roast for us. It was great,” he said.


Children at Sunday’s dedication of the Lauren Rousseau Memorial Playground thought the new facility was great, too. The speeches were barely over before the little ones were all over it.


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