Stamford playground celebrates life of Jesse Lewis

Scarlett Lewis, in the gray skirt, speaks with a child during the construction of a playground at West Beach in Stamford in honor of her son, Jesse, who was killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in 2012. (Courtesy Maureen Clark)

Scarlett Lewis, in the gray skirt, speaks with a child during the construction of a playground at West Beach in Stamford in honor of her son, Jesse, who was killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in 2012. (Courtesy Maureen Clark)

Emotions ran high at the unveiling of a playground in Stamford dedicated to Jesse Lewis, a victim of the Sandy Hook massacre in 2012.

The playground was the brainchild of New Jersey firefighter Bill Lavin, who decided to build 26 playgrounds for the 26 Sandy Hook victims in 26 locations that were hit hardest by Superstorm Sandy. The support he’s received has been overwhelming, he said.

“For me, it’s a very selfish project,” Lavin said, self-effacing. “We get far more out of it than we give… To provide a lasting memorial or lasting celebration of their child’s life and have them tell us how grateful they are for it — there’s no place on Earth you can go for that type of feeling.”

Jesse has become something of a hero after his death, with stories of how he told his classmates to run when the shooter reached his first grade room. His mother, Scarlett Lewis, a former Darien resident, is at the forefront of a “choose love” movement, with the Jesse Lewis Choose Love Foundation at its epicenter.

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For Lewis, the playground brought back a flood of emotions.

“In the days leading up to it, it was hard,” Lewis told The Darien Times. “In essence it is a memorial… Everything like that, makes your loss — you realize more and more how permanent it is.”

The experience overall has been nothing but positive, she said.

“The playground is one of the nicest, no, it is the nicest, kindest, most generous and most loving gift I’ve ever received, my family and I,” she said.

The turquoise, orange and yellow playground sits at West Beach in Stamford and took three days to build, Lavin said. It incorporates Jesse’s favorite toys — an army soldier and rubber ducks — and also uses some of Jesse’s artwork and writing.

Jesse left a message on a chalkboard the day he was killed that read, “Nurturing Healing Love.” His mother used that phrase as motivation for her foundation and also as the title of her book, which has been translated into German and will hit that market soon.

Jesse also left a message for this brother, JT, that said, “Have a lot of fun.” A sign bearing that message welcomes visitors to the playground.

The playgrounds are part of the Sandy Ground Project created by the Where Angels Play Foundation, which Lavin founded. Jesse’s playground was the 20th to be built.

Lavin and other firefighters built playgrounds in Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina, and the idea to do something similar for the Sandy Hook victims took off soon after those incidents.

Firefighters from three states and volunteers from around the region helped build the playground and donate for its construction, Lavin said. Stamford Public Schools ran a district-wide fund-raising campaign that pulled in more than $20,000. All 26 playgrounds are estimated to cost $3 million.

“This is significant for the families and in every case, they are the strongest, most courageous people to be able to suffer this type of loss and stand up in front of hundreds of people and give the gift of spirit of their child to a community,” Lavin said. “It is humbling and really inspirational to watch.”

The groundbreaking event happened on Sunday, May 4, and brought a crowd of roughly 500 people. Lewis’s friend, State Police Sgt. Bill Cario, brought a horse for the event that was incorporated into the ceremony. Cario was one of the first responders to the Newtown shooting, and he and Lewis have since become friends, she said.

Lavin worked with Lewis to find the best location. Lewis looked at Darien, but it didn’t work out, she said. The only criteria she had was that it was close to her Newtown home.

“I knew Jesse was leading him,” Lewis said. Lavin agreed, saying that while “it sounds crazy… it’s divinely driven.”

“I think the angels kind of figure it out for us,” Lavin said, alluding to the spirit of those he is memorializing choosing the location of the playgrounds.

There are still six playgrounds to be built, including two more in Connecticut — one for 6-year-old Charlotte Bacon, to be built in West Haven, and one for Principal Dawn Hochsprung. This location has yet to be determined, but will be the final one built, Lavin said.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal attended the ground-breaking, as did Stamford Mayor David Martin. Gina Aiello acted as chairman of the Stamford playground project. After the ribbon cutting, children poured into the playground as cameras captured the moment.

As for Lewis, she remains focused on spreading the message of forgiveness and compassion. She’s partnering with Connecticut Educational Services to hold a professional development workshop for teachers on how to incorporate the teaching of compassion into curriculum. That will happen at the Oronoque Country Club in Stratford on Monday, July 14.

In the meantime, area children have a place to play under the hopeful words left by Jesse for his family.

“They are examples of triumph over tragedy,” Lavin said of the victim’s families. “We refer to them as our family, and it’s family first.”

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