WALLENPAUPACK - A community of friends and strangers came together on a recent sunny Saturday, to construct a playground in the memory of Hunter Pedersen who was in the fifth grade at Wallenpaupack North Intermediate School when he passed away three years ago.

Kayla Pedersen, Hunter’s oldest sister connected with Where Angels Play, a nonprofit foundation that has built 46 playgrounds in the name of children and adults, 26 being for those from the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.

At the start of the construction September 23, Emma Pedersen, Hunter’s younger sister told the volunteers that the playground meant a lot to her because the colors were those of the Pittsburgh Steelers, which was her brother’s favorite team. The playground being built was great, since she is a student in the school and will be able to play on the playground that “will bring happiness” to many and allow him to be remembered. 

The founder of Where Angels Play, Bill Lavin calls those remembered “angels,” whose legacies will live on because of volunteers from the area as well as firefighters from Boston and Connecticut to South Carolina and Canada. 

The playground, Lavin told the volunteers is a gift from Hunter to his community, that they were inspired to construct by a child he had never met, but felt as though he knew because of those that he once inspired. Hunter’s parents, Robert and Tammi who is battling breast cancer, are Lavin’s “heroes,” since they trusted him in such a difficult time. 

Lavin also acknowledged Kayla who initiated the project and helped design the playground with contractors Rich and Toni Picerno of Picerno Giordano Contracting in New Jersey. Then there was the foreman, 11-year-old Emma who he had been in continual communications with.

Kayla told the crowd she never imaged a park in her brother’s name; but now, the park will allow for everyone to celebrate his life. She shared memories of him and his joy of the outdoors, even when having to play with their younger sister Emma. She expressed her appreciation to everyone and felt Hunter was “showing signs” because there were butterflies everywhere on the sunny fall day.           

Kayla told the News Eagle she was “ecstatic” with a full heart. With so many volunteering their Saturday, she wasn’t surprised because the community and the teachers are “amazing.” A 2017 graduate of Wallenpaupack, Kayla is now studying nursing at Indiana University because she has always wanted to help people.

Following Hurricane Katrina, Lavin who was the president of the New Jersey State Firefighters’ Mutual Benevolent Association along with many other first responders built a playground in an area devastated from that storm.

A few years later in 2013, wanting to do something in the name of the 26 “angels” from the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, volunteers that consisted of firefighters, police officers, educators and community members went on to build 26 playgrounds throughout the regions affected by Hurricane Sandy in a matter of 18 months. 

When he was caught up in the politics of his job, Lavin said his priorities weren’t straight until he saw what others were facing following Hurricane Katrina. Taking part in the builds has been a “blessing,” that has changed him. With national politics and the stresses of life, taking part in Where Angels Play gets people “back to our roots,” by supporting others and makes people aware of who they are and what they have.

While a playground will not eliminate a family’s pain, Lavin said they can be given a “special place” where people can be happy. Such playgrounds are a, “celebration of life” as children need to be celebrated and a playground is the perfect place for that. 

The playgrounds, Lavin said teaches those involved that “triumph over tragedy” is possible because whether it be a hurricane or the death of a child, people are able to unite and do something for the better good.

Several volunteers, also known as the “Angels Army,” will be traveling to Africa to build playgrounds because a genocide survivor from Rwanda helped a child from Sandy Hook Elementary, who created “Newtown for Rwanda” that raised funds to send children to college. From there, an organization, “Kids Around the World” asked Levin to build playgrounds in third world countries.    

Having been involved in several charities, Where Children Play is special Lavin said, because the results can be seen as families enjoy time together at a playground. The organization started after Lavin received a letter from a child thanking him for the first playground. Now, he is grateful because he enjoys singing songs by Kermit the Frog and looking for angels, as angels have given him his “life back.” For those who don’t believe in angels, Lavin said he is “living proof that people live on.”   

When Lavin first thought of the organization, there were some who thought it wasn’t possible. But he had to push forward he said, because of the empathy he had for those who lost their children and try to do the “impossible” by making a difference in their lives. One parent later told Lavin that he wasn’t sure if he would’ve been able to survive after losing his daughter, if not for her playground.

Lavin acknowledged the “wonderful” Lake Region community for volunteering, offering their homes to strangers and giving bountiful foods, in addition to the Wallenpaupack Board of Education for supporting the project.

Funding tends to be the largest challenge when building a playground, Lavin said. But in the case of “Hunter’s Playground,” the district purchased the equipment since the middle school was in need of an upgrade and then, the Angels Army did the work.

Each playground is different Lavin said, but they are all “special” and through each build, the Angel’s Army grows as more people want to get involved. There are little “special” differences with each build, but every playground is an example of strength shown by the families who must continue on after their loss.

Amber Karausky who is a teacher at the school and knew Hunter, said he was “wonderful” as he was “full of heart” and willing to help anyone. Karausky was at the build with her 2-year-old daughter Iyla, who helped remove rocks from the dirt.  

One of Hunter’s teachers, Tanya Cunningham said the project was “special” because it was a memory for his family and a chance for others to recognize the positive. As for signs, Cunningham feels they are “absolutely” real, as was the case during the build, when a monarch butterfly continued to fly around the playground, which she believed was “Hunter watching over” everyone.

Rich Picerno with his wife Toni of Picerno Giordano Contracting thanked the volunteers for allowing them to come to a “sacred ground” to be a part of a “beautiful build.” Seeing everyone pay it forward, shows that “love wins” which is why so many were there for Hunter and his family.

The Picernos have been a part of the Angels Army since the beginning, with Rich being the contractor and Toni designing the playgrounds after communicating with the families. Being a part of the Angels Army has been life changing for Picerno. He explained that, he feels he is a better person and has new friends and family. It is his job, Picerno feels to make the playgrounds a “sacred place” with the help of his wife who comes to understand who the people were through their interests and personalities. 

There are components of the playgrounds that are “reflective of the person” Toni said, as is the case with Hunter’s Playground, where his handwriting is displayed on a piece that resembles his football jersey. Seeing people enjoy the playgrounds, is “so rewarding” because they are for the betterment of a community.

Being around the Angels Army and taking part in this project, Wallenpaupack North Intermediate School Principal Amanda Cykosky said has been life changing because of the people involved. Losing a student is “devastating,” but the army has given them Hunter’s Playground, which will “be forever.” What the army does, Cykosky said is “amazing” because the “power of positivity” and being able to put one’s energy into something for others she feels is inspiring.

After losing Hunter, Tammi and Robert said the community’s support was unbelievable and it made them realize how many good people there are. Together, the family placed their hands in cement at the playground and that, they weren’t expecting. There were many surprises to the playground, which Robert said were “nice.” By having Hunter’s Playground, the family is “thankful” to everyone for volunteering and letting his son live on.  

For more information about the Where Angels Play Foundation visit http://whereangelsplayfoundation.org/.