NORTH BRUNSWICK – When William Lavin was 15 years old, he lost his father. He said he was “mad at everybody.”
Not only did his brother, Bob, obviously lose his father, too, but years later, he also lost his 2-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, in a terrible accident.
Bob Lavin also said he was “mad at everybody,” until one day he was cooling down from a run, looked up to the sky and saw Elizabeth’s image in the rays of the sun.
“She was smiling. I immediately knew she was happy with God,” he said, noting how all the resentment and grief drained from his body.
William Lavin recalled a quote from his mother, the late Elizabeth Dwelle Lavin: “If I threw my problems into a pile, I would fight to get mine back.”
William Lavin was a firefighter and knew many people who died during the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Focused on recovery, he said a third-grade class from Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, sent cheer cards to the firemen.
Four years later, their area was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. William Lavin, who was the president of his firefighters union, helped raise $400,000 for Save the Children.
On May 1, 2006, the New Jersey State Firefighters’ Mutual Benevolent Association built three handicap-accessible playgrounds at their school.
“It was an opportunity for us to return their childhood back to them,” William Lavin said.
New Jersey then experienced its own bout with Mother Nature in 2012 with superstorm Sandy. William Lavin saw a news clip of Karli Coyne in Mississippi who was thanking the firefighters for their efforts, saying her town would pay-it-forward by sending Christmas gifts to the New Jersey children who were devastated by Sandy.
Just two months later, Newtown, Connecticut, battled its own tragedy with the killing of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
As New Jersey “started to rebuild our coast,” William Lavin said he wanted to celebrate how each child in Sandy Hook lived his/her life and create playgrounds that would capture the childrens’ personalities.
“It was a symbol of recovery and hope,” he said. “You could live to be 100 years old and not have the impact these 6-year-olds had after their deaths.”
In 19 months, 26 playgrounds – one for each person killed in Connecticut – were built from $3 million in donations.
“It is so important to not just take care of yourself and suffer when you feel bad for yourself, but it’s important to heal others,” William Lavin said.
They were inspired by J.T. Lewis, whose younger brother, Jesse, was killed in the Newtown massacre. Lewis was depressed and not going to school, but one day had Skyped with a Rwandan survivor, who had lost her family and village. Lewis founded Newtown Helps Rwanda and with Kids Around the World, refurbished playgrounds and shipped them around the world.
Enter William Lavin.
The Where Angels Play Foundation was born and has built 48 playgrounds since, the most recent of which was in Rwanda in November.
“We found poverty beyond imagination, but also found smiles on their faces,” Lavin said of his trip to Africa with 20 volunteers. “There were people who have overcome unbelievable odds.”
The five-hour bus ride through rolling hills and farmland brought them to Kibeho, a village 6,200 feet above sea level that is known for a 1980s apparition of the Virgin Mary.
Lavin said the men of the village danced for 10 minutes upon learning they were receiving bicycles from the visitors because it opened up avenues for commerce for tea and coffee, and allowed them to leave their village.
“While they appear to have very little, they taught us how to have everything,” Lavin said.
He said there were 145-pound men running downhill with 85 pounds of cement on their backs, showing their physical strength and mental determination to help the Americans.
It took four days to build the Rwandan playground, mostly because of the altitude and not having the proper tools and equipment, Lavin said.
The Lavins, whose nephew Tim Huber is a math teacher at North Brunswick Township High School, stopped by the school on April 25 with survivors of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.
Maurice Kabuguza, 36, was 12 years old when competing tribes ravaged his community. He said he had lived a pretty good life prior – going to country clubs to swim and thinking he was better than everyone else.
On April 7, 1994, he lost his parents and his aunts. Within one week, he said he lost his uncles. There were no more dogs. There were no more video games.
Nine months later, he said the country was lost in the war. There was not enough food, no sugar, and he had to eat corn and beans morning, noon and night.
He wound up at a refugee camp in the Congo, with no roof, no tent and a sense of hopelessness.
“A woman took care of me and brought me back to life when I thought there was no hope,” he said.
Friends of Kabuguza’s parents in France helped him deal with his emotions, and he learned to write stories and poetry. He attended high school in Europe.
“I was able to realize though I lost everybody, I was living pretty good,” he said.
He decided to return to Rwanda for vacation in order to forgive those who killed his sister, brothers and parents.
“If you are angry at somebody you can’t sleep. You can’t think about anything else. You can’t go forward in your life,” he said. “You don’t need to go through a tragedy to change. … Don’t wait to go through something horrible to be a good person.”
Robert Karara, 34, said the genocide actually began in the 1950s, but the majority of killings were in a 100-day period in 1994, bringing the total to about 1 million people.
“People were dying one by one, one by one. It was silent killing,” he said.
Karara said his father went to Tanzania, so there were relatives in both countries. Karara was born in a refugee camp, but returned to Rwanda with his father – his father was poisoned to death and he was raised by his mother. He said his mother was brave because when she returned home, her land was occupied, but she knew the children weren’t responsible for the actions of their parents.
Karara said the Rwanda of today doesn’t speak of tribes, but instead of peace and reconciliation.
He went to university in Tanzania, participating in sports, theater and storytelling. He joined film school and has created his own films.
“When I started to grow up I started to feel the forgiveness. It was nice,” he said.
Although Sean Creighton was born in Tennessee, he has lived the majority of his life in Africa. His mother works for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Rwanda and his father is a doctor, lawyer and filmmaker.
“Living internationally, you get a perspective you can’t get in a classroom,” he said.
Creighton has lived in Rwanda for three-and-a-half years, being one of two people who graduated from the 12th grade there. He said this forced him to accept others and learn to be tolerant because there is no opportunity to make new friends. He said you have to see past your bias and interpret what others go through.
“Perspective is key,” he said. “You can’t BS your way through a conversation or through an argument without perspective. You’re just repeating what your biases are and that leads to [misinformation] spreading.”
Creighton also is a filmmaker, directing and editing three episodes of the TV show “Mutoni” about a nurse in Rwanda who takes a new job working with Community Health Workers in the countryside.
After the three Rwandans spoke, North Brunswick Township High School student Paula Habib was asked to read a letter that was written to the mother of Hannah Duffy, a 14-year-old who died of brain cancer in 2013. The letter writer explained how she was so upset Hannah scored a soccer goal and her team won, even though it was her birthday – until she realized the trials Hannah was facing.
William Lavin said this was an example of needing to count your blessings, be kind to one another and appreciate others.
Bob Lavin said the stories of Kabuguza, Karara and others are always based on the same thing: forgiveness. He wished Rwandans could teach the world that love is the answer.
As for the Where Angels Play Foundation, the next playground is planned for Medford, Massachusetts, and then in Lavallette. One in Swaziland is planned for around 2020; William Lavin said it takes four months to ship the playground equipment.
The playgrounds are built as money is raised, which usually comes through penny drives, 5Ks, golf outings, local fire department outreach, Bar Mitzvah projects, lemonade stands, book sales, bake sales, etc., according to William Lavin.
The playgrounds have reached into Canada, Africa and Haiti.
The only playground in Middlesex County is in Sayreville. The Lyrics for Lucas Foundation, along with the Where Angels Play Foundation, opened the Lucas Albert DiGuilio Memorial Playground on April 30, 2017, at the Garden Friends child care center. Lucas passed away at the age of 22 months in 2016 from sudden unexplained death in childhood.
William Lavin said another project is building the Where Angels Play School in Rwanda, partnering with Energy 4 Impact, since only 1 percent of the country has power.
“I hope you leave here with more joy and love in your heart than you came in with,” Lavin said.
Where Angels Play is based out of Woodbridge. For more information or to become involved, visit whereangelsplayfoundation.org.
Contact Jennifer Amato at firstname.lastname@example.org.