"We Are Standing Here On Holy Ground:" Kathy Carroll Playground Springs To Life

Lucy Gellman | May 19th, 2023

Culture & Community  |  Education & Youth  |  Arts & Culture  |  Nature  |  Newhallville

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Top: Volunteers on the playground Thursday morning. Bottom: Charla Nich with a list of 320 donors. Lucy Gellman Photos.

In the yard behind 660 Winchester Ave., it looked as though the neighborhood had come to life. Small mountains of wood chips had appeared overnight, sending the scent of cedar into the air. Cement mixers whirred and hummed a hello with clouds of fine white dust. At the center of it all, an angel’s full wingspan stretched over a blue slide, as if it was watching over people as they worked. 

Thursday morning, it marked the first full community workday on the long-awaited Kathy Carroll Playground, a collaboration between Christian Community Action (CCA), the Where Angels Play Foundation, and a group of Carroll’s friends and family members who formed a playground committee in her memory in December 2020. 

It honors the trailblazing legacy of Dr. Kathleen Carroll, a pioneer in the field of addiction medicine and research who was also a doting parent, “cool carpool mom,” avid reader, and firm believer in the power of play who died in December 2020. When she passed away, she left behind a network of family members, peers, friends and colleagues who are still grieving her loss two and a half years later. 

“I’m just overwhelmed with emotions,” said Carroll’s daughter, Kate Chivian. “A lot of love for my mom, a lot of love for the community coming together. I just feel the love.”

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Rev. Grubby: We are on holy ground. Lucy Gellman Photos.

“If anyone didn’t believe that dreams could come true, you are now a believer,” said Rev. Bonita Grubbs, who has led CCA since 1988. “It’s because of all of you, who came here, used your time, gave your skills, to be able to make this a reality. All of the Kathy Carroll playground participants made this happen—that we are standing here, yes, on holy ground.”  

The playground now stands behind 660 Winchester Ave., where CCA and the Housing Authority of New Haven opened the New HOPE transitional housing program last June. The work of a playground committee that raised over $250,000 for the project, it replaces an old, out-of-date playground that was unsafe to use for almost a decade before it was demolished. Charla Nich, a friend and colleague of Carroll's who spearheaded playground efforts, said she was grateful to 320 donors who got them there. 

After a ribbon cutting on Saturday, kids and families from the Newhallville neighborhood will again have a place to play. Those include the 18 families that live at New HOPE.      

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Top: Bill Lavin and Kate Chivian have a moment. Bottom: Laura Hopkins, who accompanies her dad Craig at the buildouts. Lucy Gellman Photos.

It is made possible by the Where Angels Play Foundation, which is helmed by retired New Jersey firefighter and union steward Bill Lavin. Two decades ago, Lavin said Thursday, he and colleagues “started to do projects like this” after airplanes struck the Twin Towers on September 11, and they needed somewhere to put their grief. In the aftermath of that day, Lavin lost 343 of his colleagues who were called in as first responders. 

It turned out community builds—what Lavin described as “a firehouse without the fire”—were familiar and cathartic, woven with laughter and the occasional good natured "busting each other's chops." In the years that followed, members of the New Jersey State Firefighters’ Mutual Benevolent Association built playgrounds in New Jersey, and later New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. After Hurricane Sandy in 2012, they began working to rebuild areas destroyed by the storm. 

Then in December of that year, they watched in horror as a school shooter murdered 20 children and six staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown. The foundation started with a goal of 26 playgrounds, to honor the “angels” who were taken prematurely from their families and loved ones. After 26, volunteers kept going, from the Great Plains to Rwanda: the Kathy Carroll Playground is number 61. 

“It helps us process,” Lavin said Thursday, as he took a white hard hat emblazoned with a red sticker in Carroll’s honor. “9/11 was 20 years ago, but you still carry that with you.” 

"It's a blessing to do it," he added. "I never met Dr. Kathy, but I feel like I know her."

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Carroll's words are all over the playground, a reminder of how she lived her life with humor and generosity. Lucy Gellman Photos.

At every buildout, Lavin said, the number of volunteers grows. There are friends, neighbors, fellow firefighters, bereaved parents and siblings, and “mud ducks” who have helped on prior projects, and return to help on more. Many are members of a club they never asked to join, and would never wish on anyone. Thursday, that included Carlos Soto, whose daughter Victoria died shielding her students at Sandy Hook. She was 27 years old.  

“She was my right hand,” Soto said, his voice breaking at one point as he remembered her instinctively warm and protective nature. Ten years ago last December, he remembered receiving a call from Soto’s mother, saying that there had been a shooting at Sandy Hook, and their daughter was missing. It became the worst day of his life.

“From something so ugly that happened, something beautiful came out of it,” he said. After working on her playground, which opened in Stratford in June 2013, he stayed on to volunteer with the foundation. He now travels to his home in Tennessee to wherever the next project is. After New Haven this month, he plans to join a build in Stanley, Virginia  in June.  

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Top: Charla Nich, Kate Chivian, Carlos Soto, Cheryl Piroscafo, and New Haven Academy student Ale Cruz. Lucy Gellman Photos.  

“I get my strength from her,” he said, motioning to where Victoria’s (Vicki) name was written in squiggly font on his t-shirt. Now, he helps run a memorial fund, literacy initiative and annual 5K race in his daughter’s honor. Last year, he said, a bartender in Myrtle Beach spotted his 5K t-shirt, and asked how he knew Victoria. It turned out that she had attended school with his daughter Carly, Victoria’s sister. 

“That was amazing. When we see signs like this … that was Vicki,” he said.

As she buzzed between piles of wood chips, squeaky wheelbarrows, and pools of freshly poured, still-wet cement, Chivian remembered her mom as building community wherever she went. When Chivian was still a kid, Carroll held neighborhood pizza nights at her home each Friday, where kids from the block could come, eat pizza, and make brownies. Sometimes, there were between 10 and 20 young people in the house, filling it with their joyful noise.

As she got older, she could see that same spark in every one of her mom’s relationships, from the colleagues and patients she worked with to a “book club posse” that gathered to mourn her over Zoom after her death. When asked if it influenced her own line of work—Chivian is the HIV Outreach Medical Case Manager at the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program—she gave a little shrug.

“It’s difficult to reflect on that kind of thing when it’s so core to you,” she said. “I don’t know any other way to live. It’s just so core to who she was.”  

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Mervis Owens. Lucy Gellman Photos.

On the playground, hydrant-red slides and yellow climbing walls sprouted from a bed of wood chips. A blue turret rose into the air, a shock of color against the equally blue sky. A yellow panel, decorated with four handprints boasted Carroll’s words: You can do anything if you just have friends. 

As she raked wood chips, 80-year-old Mervis Owens said she was happy and excited to help. Decades ago, Owens moved to New Haven from Jamaica, working jobs at the Winchester Repeating Arms Company and Pratt & Whitney until her retirement. She gives back to the community whenever she can. 

Now a resident of the city’s Hill neighborhood, Owens found out about the playground project through Nich, and jumped immediately on board. For years, she’s lived across the street from CCA’s Davenport Avenue satellite. “It’s amazing!” she said, looking around at the progress volunteers had made by noon Thursday.  

“We’ll see something from the angels today,” chimed in retired Milford firefighter Ron Wetmore as he looked over a half moon of wet cement. “It happens at every playground out here. This is the only time I go to church.”

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Christopher Brigham and Devon Smith, Jr.. Brigham has been with the NHFD for 13 years and Smith has been with them for year and a half. Lucy Gellman Photos.

As they filled two wheelbarrows with wood shavings, New Haven firefighters Christopher Brigham and Devon Smith, Jr. said they were both excited to pitch in, and spend the day working outside around fellow firefighters in the process. Brigham, who has been with the New Haven Fire Department for 13 years, said that he sees it as honoring Carroll’s legacy. 

For 22-year-old Smith, who grew up half a block away on Lilac Street, it also feels personal. When he was growing up in Newhallville, he played on the old playscape, which was already falling apart. He remembered attending a head start program in the basement of 660 Winchester Ave., which for years was the old Ivy Street School. 

Now, his younger brother has a safe place to play. “He can come out here and play all the time,” he said. “The first kid to play on this playground, they’re gonna be like, ‘Wow, this is so beautiful.’”

“I just want to give back,” he said. “I love New Haven. I love the people. This is the city that made me who I am today.”

A ribbon cutting for the Kathy Carroll Playground is scheduled for Saturday May 20 at 11 a.m. The playground is located behind the New HOPE transitional program at 660 Winchester Ave.