NEWTOWN, Conn. (AP) The families of Newtown shooting victims Dylan Hockley and Victoria Soto plan to be surrounded by the laughter of children as they mark the six-month passing of the tragedy.
A ribbon cutting is planned Friday at a playground in Westport being built in honor of Hockley. Ground will be broken at another in nearby Stratford in Soto's memory.
They are fourth and fifth being constructed by a New Jersey firefighters union that has plans for 26 playgrounds in Connecticut, New Jersey and New York. Most will be in communities affected by Superstorm Sandy, which shared part of a name with Sandy Hook Elementary School.
For Dylan's family, watching his 8-year-old brother Jake break a rare smile while helping to build the playground was comforting.
"Jake was right in there. He dug the first shovelful, and he was working in the Bobcat and was acting as the foreman, helping direct the team," Ian Hockley said. "I heard him tell a (television) station that this will honor Dylan. To be able to think about this project in that way, I think is very helpful to him."
The design of Dylan's purple playground features the moon and butterflies, two things he loved. Dylan, who had autism, liked to flap his arms and told his mother he was a butterfly. Educational signs will describe the stages of a butterfly's life, and it will incorporate big butterflies on poles and at the top of a slide, said Bill Lavin, president of the firefighters union. The symbol for autism awareness is also part of the design, Lavin said.
Soto's playground in Stratford, next door to Newtown, will be pink and have a flamingo theme.
"If Vicki could have had flamingos as a pet, I think she would have," said sister Jillian Soto, 24. "It's such a positive thing they are doing, they are bringing joy. My family is going to be there to help set this up and be a part of this."
Jillian Soto said her big sister's playground will be a fitting tribute to a woman who made children her life, and is more special because it will be built in their hometown, near the home of cousins who are 10, 5 and 3 years old and will be able to enjoy it.
She says it will be a way to have a positive experience on what otherwise would be an awful day.
Each has been personalized to incorporate something that person loved.
The families of all 26 victims have agreed to be involved in the playgrounds' designs, Lavin said. Some have gotten involved in the construction, lifting beams and fastening bolts. Older siblings, like Jake, are made honorary foremen on the projects.
"It's been very cathartic for us, and the families feel the same way," Lavin said. "More than a few of the families have said they were offered gifts and money and cruises and other things, and not a lot of that made sense to them. This seemed appropriate to them."
Each playground takes about a week to build. They are all handicapped-accessible and have similar swings, slides, balance beams and monkey bars. But each also is being personalized for the child or educator it represents, using their favorite colors and something that made them unique.
Lavin said his group has raised about a third of the $3 million it needs to build all 26 playgrounds. Some of that has come from children, such as a seventh-grader who raised $100 selling wallets and purses she made from duct tape.
"That's what this project is all about," he said. "We do something for these families, they do something for the children, and the children learn from that and pass it forward."
Hockley said of the dozens of memorials and tributes to his son and the other Sandy Hook victims, this one is special. In part, he said it's because Lavin took the time to get their permission and showed a generous heart.
But it's more than that, he said.
Hockley said he and his wife used to take the children to different playgrounds when they moved to Connecticut and explored the area, watching as his sons found joy in a new slide or swing.
"Playgrounds are all about children - children having fun; children meeting each other in a safe place," he said. "Because it's at a school, you've got, guaranteed, 500 children ready and waiting to play on this thing."