26 Playgrounds Honor the Victims Killed At Sandy Hook

Parents of the children killed at Sandy Hook Elementary hope that other kids can let loose and have fun on the memorial playgrounds. They also hope the adults who brought them will think about gun safety.

An image of roses with the faces of the Sandy Hook Elementary students and adults that were shot and killed at the school on 12/14/12 are seen on a pole in Newtown, Connecticut on January 3, 2013.
Roses with the faces of the Sandy Hook Elementary students and adults that were shot and killed at the school on 12/14/12 are seen on a pole in Newtown, Connecticut on January 3, 2013. . Photo: TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP via Getty Images.

In the last nine years, 26 playgrounds have been built across Connecticut, New Jersey, and Connecticut as part of Sandy Ground Project: Where Angels Play. The effort, conceived by the Firefighters' Mutual Benevolent Association of New Jersey, was partially started to help the Tri-State region recover from Hurricane Sandy, which devastated the area. But it connects the storm with another tragedy bearing a similar name: The massacre at Sandy Hook.

The massacre, one of the deadliest school shootings in U.S. history, stole the lives of 20 students and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Tuesday, December 14, marks nine years since the tragedy. Today, kids who weren't born when the killer opened fire inside the elementary school can go down the slides as others tell their parents to push them higher on the swings.

Recently, Nicole Hockley was one of the parents on the playground—except she sat on the swing alone. Her son, Dylan, died at Sandy Hook at the age of six. The playground she was visiting was the one dedicated to him.

Hockley has since become a vocal proponent of gun safety. She and other parents affected by the tragedy started the non-profit Sandy Hook Promise to advocate for gun safety, sometimes with attention-grabbing tactics. In one video viewed more than 8 million times, a student hides in the bathroom to send her mom one final message during a school shooting.

The nonprofit's goal is to prevent similar tragedies, something then-President Barrack Obama echoed, through tears, nine years ago. "These tragedies must end," Obama said.

But they haven't. Last month, four students died when classmate Ethan Crumbley, 15, opened fire in Oxford, MI. On Feb. 14, 2018, Nikolas Cruz murdered 17 people and physically injured 17 more at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL.

The latter spurred more activism. Many of the students organized March for Our Lives, a demonstration to call for gun control legislation in Washington, D.C. Nearly 900 sibling events took place across the country.

But still, legislation has been slow, particularly at a federal level, where the expansion of background checks for firearm purchases remains unpopular, especially among Republican lawmakers.

Meanwhile, the parents of the Sandy Hook victims have taken different paths. Some, like Hockley, have become entrenched in advocacy. Others have preferred to grieve privately. The playgrounds, though spread across the Tri-State region, serve as common ground.

"It's the only thing all 26 families agreed to," Hockley said in an interview with CNN at Dylan's playground.

Hockley considers the playground Dylan's memorial. But Sandy Hook parents also want other kids to simply enjoy visiting them. Still, some hope the adults think about why the playgrounds exist.

"People who have no reason to think about [gun safety] but who find themselves at the playground will think about it," Mark Barden, whose son, Daniel, was in first grade when he was murdered during the massacre, told CNN. "We hope people will think about how they can get involved in something that leads to solutions around this epidemic of gun violence."

Dan Canavan, a 46-year-old dad who takes his children to Daniel's playground, agrees.

"People should be talking about it…hopefully, the playground keeps the conversation going," Canavan said in an interview with CNN.

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