The town's Parks and Recreation Commission on Wednesday night voted 6-0 to approve a playground in Jessica's memory on a site next to Penfield Pavilion, where swing sets currently stand. The playground, which will be built by Fairfield firefighters, police officers and teachers, is one of 26 playgrounds that will be built along the coast in Connecticut, New York and New Jersey to honor 20 children and six adults shot Dec. 14 at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
"We want people to remember how these children and adults lived, rather than how they left this earth," said William Lavin, an Elizabeth, N.J., fire captain who is leading the effort to memorialize victims of the nation's worst school shooting by building playgrounds in their honor.
Lavin said Fairfield was one of the towns chosen for the Sandy Ground Project because Jessica's mother, Krista Rekos, received her undergraduate and graduate degrees from Fairfield University, and because Jessica loved the water and was interested in orca whales. The playground honoring Jessica would encompass 2,600 square feet and replace one or two swing sets. It also would reflect Jessica's love of horses, Lavin said.
Fairfield Fire Lt. Bob Smith, president of the local firefighters union, said, "We're trying to take care of the family and give them a little bit of peace with the whole situation, give them something they can be proud of and honor their daughter."
"That's what this is all about," Smith said.
Anka Roberto, the parent of a child at Sandy Hook Elementary School, told the commission that a playground represents joy, laughter, fun and happiness and that the initiative to build 26 playgrounds in honor of victims "allows people to restore themselves and bring joy back to their lives."
Lavin said he had spoken with all of the families who lost loved ones in the school shooting and that the mothers said they couldn't think of a more appropriate way to honor their children than through a playground.
Lavin said three playgrounds have been built so far, with another two scheduled to be installed in the next two weeks. A playground in Sea Bright, N.J., honors Anne Marie Murphy, who was a teacher at Sandy Hook Elementary School; a playground in Union Beach, N.J., honors Jack Pinto, who was a first-grader; and a playground in Ansonia honors Catherine Hubbard, who also was a first-grader.
On Friday, a playground is scheduled to be installed at Long Lots Elementary School in Westport in honor of first-grader Dylan Hockley, and on June 14, a playground will be built at Penders Field in Stratford in honor of Victoria Soto, a Sandy Hook teacher, Lavin said.
The final playground planned by project organizers is due to be built in Newtown, possibly at the site of Sandy Hook Elementary School, and each town where a playground has been installed will have a flag at that playground, Lavin said. "Our goal, which is very ambitious, is to try to complete the project by December 14th of this year," he said. "We can build as many as two to three of these at a time."
Lavin said each playground built in honor of each child is designed to reflect the personality and interests of the youngster. The playground memorializing Jack Pinto, for instance, is in the shape of a football because Jack loved the New York Giants.
Lavin said all of the playgrounds are built at no cost to the towns and that funding for 10 playgrounds is in place. The playgrounds, he said, are not only a gift to victims' families, but a gift from victims' families.
Carla Allen, who was Krista Rekos' roommate at Fairfield University, said Fairfield had brought Krista a lot of happiness.
Kevin Kenney, a retired Fairfield firefighter who now lives in Monroe, said families of the Newtown victims had received a lot of donations in the wake of the school shooting and their first thought was to whom they could give those donations. "They were thinking of other people," he said. "This is the one thing this family does want, and I think it should be given to them. I would like it on the beach for their little daughter."
Several residents said they supported a playground in Fairfield in honor of Jessica but questioned whether Penfield Beach was the best place.
Chuck Abercrombie, a District 10 member of the Representative Town Meeting and a member of the Fairfield Beach Residents Association, a neighborhood group, said Penfield Beach is "very crowded" and that Penfield Pavilion, which is currently closed by damage from Superstorm Sandy, needs to be restored. He questioned whether Veterans Park or Roger Sherman School would be better sites for Jessica's playground, and added that if the commission approves the the proposal for Penfield Beach, it should be "part of a comprehensive plan."
Ian Bass, president of the Fair Acres Association, another shoreline neighborhood group, said the playground would be a wonderful tribute, but wouldn't be accessible to families who didn't have a beach sticker and the Penfield Beach area is already overdeveloped. He also questioned whether the playground would be susceptible to damage during storms, noting that federal and state authorities had suggested that towns not build on beaches.
Bass also said, even though it is the least of his concerns, the playground, which would have two 11-foot towers, could impede views. "We just think this beach location is not the best," he said.
Gerald Lombardo, director of the town's Parks and Recreation Department, said installation of the playground would have to be done with the pending reconstruction of Penfield Pavilion in mind. "I think it just needs coordination so I would say that can be worked out," he said.
Lavin said the playground would be anchored in 36 inches of cement and that a playground built in New Jersey in honor of a Sandy Hook victim survived a nor'easter three weeks after it was built. "This structure is being played on as we speak," Lavin said.
Lavin said the playground, unlike the pavilion, would not be a significant barrier to high winds and water.
Lombardo said the location of the proposed playground wouldn't take away beach space because it would be within "fall zones" for the swing set. "It's not taking up any beach space used by sunbathers because it is in the area where kids are swinging," he said.
Lombardo said the swing sets now on the site are 8 feet high and require a 16-foot horizontal fall zone. He said Jennings Beach already has a large playground and that it would be easier for the playground to be accessible to the disabled if it were near Penfield Pavilion.
Lavin said the playground likely would encounter resistance no matter where it was proposed. "No matter where we put the structure there's going to be somebody who doesn't want it in their backyard," he said. "Why not put it in a place where Krista and the family would like it to be?"
Vincent Maiolo of Homeland Street said he is pleased the Rekos family wants the playground in Fairfield and that he is "100 percent in favor of this proposal." He said Fairfield is "being given an opportunity to be in a unique and welcoming position" to honor a victim of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.
"This playground will also generate constant smiles on hundreds of children's faces who will enjoy this playground for years to come," Maiolo said.
Fire Chief Richard Felner and Deputy Fire Chief Art Reid spoke in support of the playground proposal, with Felner saying it would occupy less space than the swing sets and fall zones and Reid saying Penfield Beach was "a fitting place for such a great tribute."
"I support it and I urge the commission to support it," Reid said.
Patti Dyer, a commission member, said she was concerned the approval process for the project had been rushed and that not enough "due diligence" had been done on the proposal. But Dyer said she said she would vote with the majority.
Commission members Barbara Rifkin and Robert Seirup Jr. said they thought the location would be fine, and Rifkin said a lot of families who visit Penfield Beach would consider the playground for Jessica "a great asset."
For information, visit the website, www.thesandygroundproject.org