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June construction set for playground memorializing Newtown shooting victim

Updated 1:46 pm, Thursday, May 23, 2013
  • A new playground at Long Lots School will be named in honor of Sandy Hook Elementary School victim Dylan Hockley's, seen on this card produced by a Newtown arts center. Photo: Carol Kaliff, File Photo / The News-Times
    A new playground at Long Lots School will be named in honor of Sandy Hook Elementary School victim Dylan Hockley's, seen on this card produced by a Newtown arts center. Photo: Carol Kaliff, File Photo

 

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A new playground honoring Newtown school shooting victim Dylan Hockley will soon be built at Long Lots Elementary School.

It will be one of 26 playgrounds built in the tri-state area to honor the 26 students and teachers who died in the December shooting -- a program organized by the New Jersey Firefighters Mutual Benevolent Association. Long Lots was chosen to honor Hockley because he has relatives in Westport.

Construction of the new, 100 percent handicap-accessible playground -- which will include swings, balance beams, monkey bars, slides, and activity games including tic-tac-toe -- will take place June 7 and 8. The playground will cost approximately $100,000.

Earl Hill, a Newtown resident and Westport firefighter, is helping to organize the Long Lots project, which will receive donations of time and equipment from area companies including A.J. Penna Construction Co., Kowalsky Brothers Construction Co., and Gault Energy.

Jake Hockley, Dylan's brother, will serve as an honorary foreman on the job.

"This is a really great idea as a way of memorializing these children's lives," Hill said. "I'm just really glad that Westport was chosen as one of the sites so that we're fortunate enough to participate."

The Long Lots playground project is part of a larger "pay it forward" movement centered around the New Jersey Firefighters Mutual Benevolent Association.

After Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, students in Mississippi learned about the efforts of Elizabeth, N.J., firefighters who had assisted the New York City Fire Department in responding to the attacks. The students sent letters of thanks to the Elizabeth Fire Department, and these letters meant a great deal to the unit, said Capt. Bill Lavin.

Four years later, Hurricane Katrina devastated the Mississippi area, and Lavin learned that 80 percent of the students who had sent those earlier letters had lost their homes and their school. Lavin visited the decimated school, and his 5,000-member organization decided that the best way to bolster the spirits of those children was to build them a new playground.

"It was really a very rewarding experience for us," Lavin said. "But we thought we'd never hear from them again."

But when Hurricane Sandy devastated the coast of New Jersey last fall, some of those same students reached out again. They arranged to donate Christmas gifts for the children of families affected by the hurricane.

About the same time as the Christmas gifts started coming in to his organization, the Newtown shooting happened. Lavin recognized another opportunity to "pay it forward," and the new Long Lots playground is part of that effort.

"The students need a playground here (in Westport) to help them out and honor one of the children in their area," Lavin said. "And when they study hard and grow up, maybe they too can pay it forward for someone else."

The Long Lots PTA is selling T-shirts and magnets to raise money for the NJFMBA -- funds that can be put towards future projects.

"It's kind of a story that has no ending," Lavin said.