With new playground, kids at Riverside Park have it made in the shade

Editor's Note: This corrects an earlier version.

New London - Bagpipes and drums sounded Sunday morning as children flooded the walkways, rock-climbing wall and slides of Emilie's Shady Spot playground at Riverside Park following a ribbon-cutting ceremony.

The park was dedicated to Emilie Parker, one of the 20 first-graders who were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 14, 2012.

"I hope that you all can feel that sweet spirit and be able to see it in the light of the children's eyes as they play," said Emilie's mother, Alissa Parker, who attended the dedication. "And for me that is the greatest gift. And to be able to share that with all of you is amazing. It is a good day."

About 250 to 300 people packed the playground site to support Emilie's parents and family as they unveiled a memorial, sign and playground after 3½ days of volunteer work.

The vividly pink playground was tied up in a blue ribbon and covered with dove balloons. The trees surrounding the playground had elaborately colored butterflies designed by area students.

Volunteers said the park will keep generations to come talking about Emilie Parker as it is designed in her favorite colors of pink, black and blue, contains her drawings and is in a shady spot, which is where she liked to spend school recess.

It is the 14th playground the New Jersey Firefighters Mutual Benevolent Association has completed since it began its Sandy Ground Project: Where Angels Play last December.

The project is designed so that each community that receives a playground raises money for a playground in another community. That effort got a big boost Sunday as the company that makes the 5-Hour Energy drink announced it was donating $50,000 to the project.

The New London Fire Department's bagpipe band began the ceremony with "God Bless America" and the crowd bowed their heads for a moment of silence. Many people's eyes glistened as they fought to hold back tears for the 6-year-old who was killed nearly one year ago. The Parkers' pastor spoke to the crowd and said he was grateful to God for being invited to attend and thankful for so many people's efforts.

Bill Lavin, former president of the New Jersey firefighters union, who organized the project, thanked a dozen groups for their support, including firefighters, police, teachers, students and community leaders.

But he said they only needed one person and that is Emilie Parker.

"Emilie is here, her spirit will lift this community for generations," Lavin said. "Emilie will watch over our angels who are here to play."

Robbie Parker, Emilie's father, told the crowd that Emilie saw the world in color.

"She was a bright, beautiful, loving girl, and that is how she expressed herself. And so to see that symbolized here so wonderfully is the perfect way to embody her spirit at this park," he said.

He said that he and his wife were amazed by the unity and love that grew out of the "evil" event on Dec. 14, but that he was disappointed to see it quickly turn into people taking sides and labeling each other.

For example, he said, people referred to themselves as "liberal" versus "pro-gun" and labeled his family as victims or one of the 20 who were killed.

Labels don't tell the whole story, he said.

"My hope is that we will stop looking at each other and realizing the differences that we have - that we can look at each other and just realize that we are all people and that we can all look at each other as citizens of New London or Connecticut or Americans, we are just people," Parker said.

Everyone is here sharing life experiences, so why not lift each other up, he asked.

This project does that and is the purest expression of love, he said.

"I challenge all of us when we leave here today to go home and break your mirrors," he added. "Stop focusing on yourself and start looking toward other people. It's charity which binds us together."

During the speeches a plane flew overhead towing a banner that read "Welcome to my Shady Spot - Love Emilie #Whereangelsplay" and fire department boats sprayed water into the sky from the Thames River. The Parkers were given a bell engraved with the message, "Every time a bell rings an angel gets its wings," handmade scarves and Riverside Park T-shirts.

Toward the end of the ceremony the children carrying dove balloons were instructed to release them into the sky. They then headed to the much-awaited playground set, which screamed, "Come play on me," said Corina Vendetto, a member of Friends of Riverside and a local coordinator for Where Angels Play, who attended the ceremony.

Ivane Lisse, an 11-year-old from Waterford, who played on the playground with her two siblings and parents, said she liked the colors and the blue slides.

Community leaders such as Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio and state Rep. Ernest Hewett, D-New London, also attended the event.

This project lets "the world know their child will never be forgotten," Hewett said.



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