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New London — Emilie Parker, one of 20 first-graders killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School, liked to give presents to other people on her birthday and at Christmas. She would have been delighted to give a playground to the children of New London.
"She had a lot of love," Emilie's mother, Alissa Parker, said Thursday as she stood among a swarm of volunteers constructing a playground in memory of the 6-year-old in the middle of Riverside Park.
"My daughter would have wanted to give back," Parker said. "She thought so much about other people. She'd get the biggest kick out of this."
Parker, her husband, Robbie, and their two younger daughters, Madeline, 5, and Samantha, 4, were on hand Thursday when construction began on "Emilie's Shady Spot," a 2,600-square-foot pink and blue playground in the wooded, waterfront park.
The New Jersey Firefighters Mutual Benevolent Association's Sandy Ground Project: Where Angels Play is installing 26 playgrounds in Connecticut, New York and New Jersey to honor the 20 children and six adults who were killed last year in the shootings at their school in Newtown. The FMBA started building playgrounds in Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina and then re-organized after the Sandy Hook shooting to build more.
Wearing small tool belts, the little blonde Parker sisters told the men to "Get to work!" after being prompted by Bill Lavin, former president of the New Jersey firefighters union, who organized the playground project. They helped hammer nails, and the entire family left hand prints in the cement around a newly erected flag pole with the words "For you with love Emilie."
"This is so beautiful," their mother said. "I couldn't be happier."
"Emilie loved stories, and telling them," said her uncle, Brady Cottle, who flew in from Eugene, Ore., to support his sister Alissa and to help build the playground. He said he was in awe of the volunteers who came together for Emilie, and of the 18-acre park that offers panoramic views of the Thames River.
The woods and the river would have been good fodder for her tales, he said.
"Emilie was a very imaginative little girl. This would have been a perfect spot for her," he said. "It's amazing. There's a lot of love here."
The specialness of Riverside Park, which the city nearly sold to the U.S. Coast Guard Academy two years ago, also was felt by some of the volunteers.
Tim McCabe, the national sales manager of Superior Recreation Products in Carrollton, Ga., which custom-made the playgrounds for all 26 projects, was at the park early Thursday when the sun was just rising over the water.
"The deer were running by," he said. "It was magical."
Dozens of volunteers began assembling the equipment early Thursday morning, including Kevin Doyle of Boston from the National Association of Government Employees, who brought 20 volunteers with him. Although his union has been raising money for the project since the beginning, this was the first worksite he'd visited.
"This is the most beautiful space," he said, looking around the park. "I'd like to build a house here."
Others traveled even farther to participate, including Kim Michelsen of Clinton, Iowa. Michelsen said she was glued to the television in December when the Newtown shootings occurred. Robbie Parker was the first parent she saw speak after the tragedy.
"When they showed the picture of his daughter, she looked just like my youngest granddaughter," said Michelsen, who flew to Connecticut Wednesday with her friend, Becky Weaver, for moral support. She became active in making schools safer in her hometown and followed the Parkers' story, including Alissa Parker's blog, "The Parker Five." When she heard about the playground, she decided she would go wherever it was being built and help.
She's staying for the dedication at 11 a.m. Sunday.
"I wouldn't have missed this for the world," she said, as she sorted through various pieces of equipment laid out on blue tarps. "I was afraid I was going to cry, but we're trying to make this a happy day. It's beautiful here."
During the flurry of construction, a group of students from nearby Winthrop School walked to the site to see where they soon would be able to play. The park has not had a playground since its antiquated and rusty equipment was removed several years ago. Alissa Parker was excited to see the children. Emilie would have been pleased her playground would be well-used, she said.
"We've had so many sad days," she said. "It's good to take a break and embrace the happy side today."
Emilie's Shady Spot is the 14th playground the firefighters have installed since December. Each was handpicked for one of the 20 children and six adults killed, and each incorporates something special about each victim. The playgrounds are donated, but each host community raises money to pass on to the next project. The program, when completed, will have cost an estimated $1.2 million.
The New Jersey group came to New London last spring at the urging of retired New London firefighter Victor Spinnato, who knows Lavin through volunteer work at the Arthur C. Luf Children's Burn Camp in Union.