Published November 13. 2013 12:00PM Updated November 13. 2013 11:57PM
New London — There was a reason part of Riverside Park was spared from being sold to the U.S. Coast Guard Academy two years ago, according to Bill Lavin, a New Jersey firefighter who brought 30 of his firefighting brothers to the city park Wednesday morning.
"We needed to keep the park for Emilie," Lavin said as he watched volunteers unload a tractor-trailer filled with playground equipment that will be set up on a 2,600-square-foot slab of concrete in the center of the park.
The New Jersey firefighters, joined by local volunteers, descended on the park to begin building a playground in honor of Emilie Parker, one of the young victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in Newtown in December.
"This is a blessing. It's a privilege for us to be involved," Lavin said as the men unloaded pink and blue swings, slides and jungle gyms from the truck, which arrived from Atlanta.
"Emilie's Shady Spot" will be dedicated at 11 a.m. Sunday.
Emilie's parents, Alissa and Robbie Parker, are expected to help build the playground today.
The New Jersey Firefighters Mutual Benevolent Association's Sandy Ground Project: Where Angels Play is installing 26 playgrounds in Connecticut, New York and New Jersey to honor the school shooting victims. The group started building playgrounds in Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina, and then re-organized after the Sandy Hook shooting to build more playgrounds.
The project, which is being done with the approval of the families of those killed, is estimated to cost between $1.8 million and $2 million.
Lavin, who was head of the FMBA for 11 years before resigning earlier this year to concentrate on the playgrounds, said volunteers arrange their work schedules around the construction projects. They are staying in New London through Friday to finish the work.
"It's a labor of love," he said. "The harder I work them, the more they thank me."
Each playground is donated to the host community, which in turn raises money to pass on to the organization for the next playground. The New London site is the 14th playground to be erected.
Riverside Park was selected last spring, after Lavin saw the tree-filled park in the city's north end that sits on the banks of Thames River. Emilie was a first-grader at Sandy Hook who told her mother she liked to play in the shade at recess.
"This feels great," said Victor Spinnato, a recently retired New London firefighter who knows Lavin through volunteer work at Arthur C. Luf Children's Burn Camp in Union.
Spinnato and retired firefighter Ed Hallisey first brought Lavin to Riverside Park, which was the subject of a referendum question in 2011 that asked voters whether to sell a portion of the park to the federal government for expansion of the Coast Guard Academy. The proposal was narrowly defeated after a recount.
"To go from almost getting rid of it to this ..." said Spinnato, who grew up in New London. "The playground is going to make this a great park."
Corina Vendetto, who was against selling the park and helped organize clean-ups to prepare for the new playground, was in awe of all the activity on Wednesday. The playground will be a focal point that will attract visitors, she said.
As the workers organized the playground pieces, heaters were set up to keep the cement slab warm and dry. A fire was started in a burn barrel to get rid the wooden pallets and to warm cold hands. Hot coffee and doughnuts covered picnic tables in the morning, pizza and soda was being delivered for lunch and the New London firefighters were expected to bring pots of chili.
"It's corny, I know, but people were always talking about their memories of the park," Vendetto said. "Now we'll have our own stories about the park. And our grandchildren and their grandchildren will have memories."
Joe Apicelli, who works for the local American Red Cross, responded to the Newtown shootings, providing meals to first responders and emergency personnel for seven days. He said he read about the playground project and volunteered to help.
"To be around this operation, it teaches you so much," he said. "I'm blessed to be here."