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Mystic — Lynn and Chris McDonnell chose a local beach as the spot for a playground celebrating the life of their 7-year-old daughter, Grace, for two reasons: Grace loved the beach, and Mystic was where Chris McDonnell had asked his wife to marry him.
Grace, the blonde-haired, blue-eyed girl who loved peace signs and painting, was one of the 20 first-graders killed on Dec. 14, 2012, at Sandy Hook Elementary School. The playground is being built as a living tribute to her.
Volunteers will begin the Sandy Ground project locally at 10 a.m. April 24 at Williams Beach, behind the Mystic YMCA. Volunteers are building the playground near the two picnic tables between the Little League Field and the Mystic River. A ribbon-cutting ceremony will be held at 11 a.m. on April 27.
Valerie Wash of Mystic, who walked her dog at the park Monday, fought back tears when she heard why the McDonnells had chosen Mystic.
"I'm just really struck so deeply," she said.
Walsh said many people go to the park to remember someone. After her mother died in 2010, she'd drive there and think about her.
"Everybody I know deeply, they all come here to remember. So how beautiful is that? How perfect is that?" Walsh said.
The New Jersey Firefighters Mutual Benevolent Association began building playgrounds after Hurricane Katrina, then reorganized after Sandy Hook as the "Sandy Ground Project: Where Angels Play," to build 26 more playgrounds in Connecticut, New York and New Jersey for the 20 children and six adults killed in the shootings.
The group built a playground called Emilie's Shady Spot to honor victim Emilie Parker at Riverside Park in New London. It opened in November.
Each playground is designed to reflect the personality of the one it honors. The park in Mystic will incorporate some of Grace's artwork.
"Grace loved the beach, so we tried to find somewhere on the beach in Mystic that (her parents) would be happy with," said MaryKate Lavin, executive director of the Where Angels Play Foundation. "She also loved peace signs and her favorite colors were pink and purple, so those will be reflected in the playground as well."
Dan Reeve, Mystic YMCA branch director, said representatives of the foundation contacted him about two weeks ago. He said the park would serve children ages 2 to 12 and would be handicapped accessible.
Each park costs about $100,000 to complete. The park in Mystic will be the 19th of the 26 the group plans to build.
Many people have seen Grace's parents, though they may not know it. A photographer captured their pain, taking a picture of Lynn McDonnell crying and her husband looking up at the sky, moments after they learned their daughter had died. The image ran on the front page of newspapers across the country, including The Day, The New York Times and The Washington Post, on Dec. 15, 2012.
Local fire and police departments are expected to be among the volunteers who will help build the playground. Mystic Deputy Fire Chief Anthony Manfredi Jr. sent an email to fire stations and other departments in the region last week saying a truck would arrive at 7 a.m. on April 24 with supplies and the group needed help with unloading.
Old Mystic Fire Chief Kenneth Richards said his department would send a contingent, and he expected others would do the same.
In an interview shortly after the shooting, Lynn McDonnell told CNN's Anderson Cooper how her daughter skipped to the bus and blew her kisses. McDonnell would blow-dry her daughter's hair and Grace would write notes to her in the steamed-up bathroom window, she told Cooper.
The day after her daughter died, Lynn McDonnell said she stood in the bathroom and saw a peace sign, a heart, and the words 'Grace' and 'Mom.'
"Grace didn't have an ounce of hate in her," Lynn McDonnell said during the interview. "And so we have to live through Grace and realize that hate is not, not how our family is and not how, certainly not how Grace is. And I know all those beautiful little children. They didn't have any hate in them either."