With a veritable herd of horses, an Orca whale sculpted out of a sand, and salutes from the sky and the sea, Jessica's Playground, one of 26 being built to honor the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting last year, was officially opened Saturday on Penfield Beach, less than 48 hours after construction started.
"These past nine months have been excruciating," said Krista Rekos, Jessica's mother and a graduate of Fairfield University. But, Rekos and her husband, Rick, and sons Travis and Shane, are proud to know that this tribute to Jessica's memory will bring happiness to other children who use the playground, she said, just like the youngster brought happiness to them in her six years.
"I hope the children of this community feel that happiness in this playground," Rekos said.
The playground is the ninth built so far in the Tri-State region by On Sandy Ground: Where Angels Play, a group spearheaded by the New Jersey Firefighters Mutual Benevolent Association. The Fairfield playground, like the others, was built using volunteers and donations, as a way to pay tribute to the memory of the Newtown children in communities that were hit by Superstorm Sandy. Three other playgrounds have been built in the state, including Westport, Stratford and Ansonia, and five are up in New Jersey. The first New York location will be done later this month.
The location here was chosen by the Rekos family, and the playground theme reflects Jessica's love of horses and Orca whales.
The New Jersey group was joined by Fairfield firefighters to bring the project to fruition. Construction began Friday morning and continued all day, even through a drenching rain storm that ended with an evening rainbow over the beach.
"I don't think I've ever been prouder of a project," said Lt. Robert Smith, president of the Fairfield firefighters' union. In addition to the firefighters who volunteered, the community chipped in as well, he said.
"One lady was here with her kids and asked me what was going on," Smith said. After he explained the project, she said their plans had changed for the afternoon and they volunteered as well. "There has been an overwhelming positive response from everybody."
While many consider the playground a present from the first-responders, said Bill Lavin, who heads up the New Jersey organization, "the truth is, this is a gift from the families to the community ... lending their child's spirit to a community."
A new addition at this playground, that will be part of all future Sandy Ground playgrounds, is a bell made by the Bevin Bell Co. A similar bell will be given to all the families.
Lavin said he called the bell company, inspired by the classic movie, "It's a Wonderful Life," with its famous line about angels getting wings every time a bell rings. To his surprise, Lavin said he learned the Bevin company made the bell used in the movie.
During the ribbon-cutting ceremony Saturday evening, a fireboat from the Bridgeport Fire Department pumped a plume of water in salute and a plane flew overhead, trailing a special message: "Horses whales and lots of (heart)."