A corner of a Hartford's Elizabeth Park became a construction site last weekend, but this wasn't just any ordinary project.
Even on a chilly day in March, hundreds of people came to watch. The organizers hope the community will continue to feel a strong connection to the playground that was built.
A group called the Sandy Ground Project is building 26 playgrounds as living memorials to the children who died in the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012.
Six-year-old Ana Grace Márquez-Greene used to come to this park with her parents. A corner of the park is being turned into playground number 18.
Before the volunteers started working, Ana Grace's mother Nelba said she would play here with Ana, her son Isiah, and her husband Jimmy before they moved to Canada. “We chose Hartford because it is very, very important to us. Jimmy and I used to make out in the park every day,” she said, drawing a burst of laughter.
Once the work started, it was a bit like watching volunteers build a giant model, except there's an audience. With a lot of playgrounds under its belt, the Sandy Ground Project had very precise plans to follow detailed instructions.
“They've got it down to a science now,” said volunteer Robert Orzechowski.
There was even a tent with food and hot drinks, and despite the tragic event that inspired this one, the atmosphere is cheerful, said Deborah Hovey, who was there with son Gabriel, a cousin of Ana-Grace, and Isiah. “There are these construction workers, and this assembly line of people who obviously have done this at least two times before,” she said. “There's lots of spectators here, there's people milling around... it has a really kind of festive atmosphere, given that this originated from such a tragedy. It's really celebratory; it's very celebratory of Ana Grace's life.”
Hovey said the playground is purple because that was Ana Grace's favorite color, and other parts of the playground showcase Ana Grace's work. She said, “They've just hung up a plaque that is from Ana Grace's artwork that says I am thankful for family, air, school...and I can't read the other two, but it's her hand print, and it's all the things she's thankful for.”
Another volunteer, Keith Gaston, met Ana Grace's mother Nelba when they both spoke at a panel at the University of Hartford recently. He said he hopes society as a whole can be more proactive to solve problems like homelessness and drug abuse before they lead to tragedies. He also noticed that at the park, there were people from all age groups and walks of life.
"The kids are probably wondering and questioning why they're here, what's going on," Gaston said, "and the parents are going to have to explain to them what happened."
Heidi Washburn has been thinking about that. She worked with Ana Grace's mother several years ago. She was there with her children, who were just happy to be at a playground and did not ask why they were there. "I tried to explain death to the little one," she said, "and I told her that my mother, for example, her happy feelings, her good feelings, lived in my heart. So if they ask, I will tell them that we built a playground so the happy feelings that Ana gave us can live in the playground too, so that we can all share them. That's pretty much the best I got without breaking down into tears, but I've given it a lot of thought."
The team will cut the ribbon on the new playground on April 4, Ana Grace's birthday.