Retired N.J. firefighter built 26 playgrounds for Newtown victims. Now his city gets one, too.

By Katie Lannan | NJ Advance Media for


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.


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