Ocean City launches Sandy Ground work

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Playground to celebrate the life of a child killed at Sandy Hook 

Rev. Kathie Adams Shepard is well placed as she blessed the playground with holy water, standing in front of a halo on the truck behind her. Rev. Kathie Adams Shepard is well placed as she blessed the playground with holy water, standing in front of a halo on the truck behind her. OCEAN CITY — A new playground - a colorful, safe, fun place for children to run, jump, laugh and explore - rose from the concrete on Thursday, May 15. 

 The playground, at 29th Street next to the firehouse, replaces one that was destroyed in Hurricane Sandy. It was designed to honor the memory of 6-year-old Ben Wheeler, one of 26 people, including 20 children, killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Newtown, Conn. in December, 2012.

At the groundbreaking ceremony for the playground on Thursday morning, Ben’s brother, Nate who was named honorary foreman for the day, offered some words of advice for dozens of volunteers, known as the “Angel’s Army.”

“Get to work!” he said, and the volunteers went on to complete the 2,600 square foot playground.

The playground is courtesy of the Sandy Ground Project, whose mission is two-fold; to rebuild playgrounds damaged by Hurricane Sandy in October, 2012 and create a living memorial to the 26 Sandy Hook victims.

There will be 26 playgrounds built; Ocean City’s is the 22nd and one of nine located in New Jersey.

“It will be a playground for families to enjoy for generations,” said Bill Lavin, founder of the Sandy Ground Project and past-president of the New Jersey Firefighters Mutual Benevolent Association.

“Ben is here, in a very real way,” Lavin told the gathered crowd. “We feel him. Ben’s spirit is in every one of us.”

 Pastor Kathie Adams Shepard, the rector at Trinity Episcopal Church in Newtown where the Wheeler family worships, blessed the new playground. Nate Wheeler was the honorary foreman on Thursday. His family traveled from Connecticut to honor the memory of his brother, Ben, murdered with many of his classmates at Sandy Hook Elementary. The project rebuilds playgrounds damaged by Hurricane Sandy and honors those killed. Nate Wheeler was the honorary foreman on Thursday. His family traveled from Connecticut to honor the memory of his brother, Ben, murdered with many of his classmates at Sandy Hook Elementary. The project rebuilds playgrounds damaged by Hurricane Sandy and honors those killed.

“We give thanks for a too-short life,” she said. Ben’s spirit, she said, loomed large over the playground, calling all who visited to live life “lovingly and fully.”  The new playground, she said, will be a place of renewal.

“A place of fun, energetic and exuberant play,” she said; a safe place, the embodiment of love and caring.

Shepard brought with her holy water from the Jordan River and from Connecticut’s Housatonic River. As she sprinkled it around the playground, she said the ground would be forever sacred.

Exuberance, David Wheeler said, epitomized how his late son, Ben charged into life each day. The first grader never stopped, he said.

“He was always laughing, always shouting, filled with life and love,” said Wheeler, who attended the event with his wife, Francine and several supporters.

Wheeler said his son, and his young classmates, didn’t know that the world could be a “tough, difficult and complicated” place.

“Through his short, sparkling life, he did not know,” Wheeler said. “He carried with him the innocence of a 6-year-old child. I’d like to think that the teachers had a similar optimism.

“That’s why what you are doing here today is so important; you are making a place where children don’t have to think about how difficult and complicated the world can be. You are making a place that’s safe and secure.”

The playground, featuring climbing and sliding elements, is decidedly blue – Ben’s favorite color – and designed with a lighthouse motif, because Ben loved lighthouses. Some of Ben’s artwork will be incorporated into the lighthouse.

Shepard said Ben’s passion for lighthouses gave birth to Ben’s Lighthouse, a foundation designed to encourage kindness and acts of goodwill.

“Each playground costs about $100,000 to build,” said Lavin. Altogether, the Sandy Ground Project raised more than $3 million. When the last of the 26 playgrounds is completed the philanthropic effort may continue, Lavin said.

“It’s become a national movement, we are considering playgrounds all over, we’ve been asked to spread out, to honor victims of other tragedies,” he said.

Lavin said the movement has roots in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when local firefighters built a playground for children in Mississippi.

“So years later, Hurricane Sandy hits, then Newtown happened,” he said. “I got a beautiful email message from Mississippi, reminding us of the beautiful playground we built for them.”

They offered a donation; Lavin said it became clear that a playground would help Sandy-victims to heal.

“We could help rebuild the coast affected by Hurricane Sandy and honor the children and teachers at Sandy Hook,” he said. “It’s remarkable how everything just sort of fell into place.”

He sees God in action in the project.

“As firefighters, and police officers, volunteering to do this work is therapeutic; all we do is witness tragedy after tragedy. This is something special.”

The community embraced the project, said Capt. John Murphy of the Ocean City Fire Department and president of the FMBA Local 27.

“We’re really excited about this,” said Murphy, adding that the Wheeler family requested that the playground be built in Ocean City because the family enjoys vacationing in the resort.

“The idea is to pay it forward,” he said. “They raise the money and build a playground. When they get it finished, we host a fundraiser and raise the funding necessary to build the next one.”

The FMBA and the PBA will host a fundraiser to help build the 23rd playground on June 22 at DiOrio’s Café in Somers Point, he said.

 “It’s really impressive what they have done,” said Murphy, adding that Feriozzi Conrete, AE Stone, Action Supply and the International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craft Workers of New Jersey contributed to the project.

Wheeler said it was difficult to express his family’s gratitude.

“From the depths of our hearts, we are so grateful,” he said.

A dedication ceremony in planned 11 a.m. Sunday, May 18. Bill Lavin the founder of the Sandy Hook Project, speaks to the crowd on Thursday. Bill Lavin the founder of the Sandy Hook Project, speaks to the crowd on Thursday.

 


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