Playground dedicated to young Newtown victim, on his birthday

James Mattioli took his first steps in Milford, where his parents, Mark and Cindy, lived prior to moving to Newtown.

So it was only fitting that a playground that bears the young boy’s name be in Milford, his mother said during a ceremony Saturday to dedicate the new playground to her son, who died at age 6 in the tragic shootings in Newtown.

Milford “is where we brought our children home” after they were born,” Cindy said. “It’s where he played on his first playground.”

Saturday is James’ birthday, and a plane towed a sign overhead that read, “A gift to Milford on my birthday, James.”

“Today is the day James would have and should have turned eight,” his mother said. “One of his favorite sayings, before he went to bed, was ‘I love ya, I love ya all’.”

So Cindy Mattioli looked skyward and sent the message to her son: “I love ya, I love ya all,” she said.

The field next to The Academy on Gulf Street was packed with people Saturday for the dedication ceremony. Local firefighters and volunteers provided the manpower for the Milford project, which is part of the  Sandy Ground project, established last year by fire departments across the tri-state area with the idea of building 26 playgrounds across New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.

Several have been built over the past year —and Milford is one of the communities to receive one. The new playground is on the site of The Academy, formerly Milford Academy, on Gulf Street.

Milford firefighters combined forces with the Milford Recreation Department to conduct a benefit fund-raiser for the project, and at the dedication fire department representatives presented the Sandy Ground project with a check for $94,000. The funds, raised through a 5K run Saturday and earlier fund-raisers, will “pay it forward” to fund another playground in the Sandy Ground project.

Milford firefighter Ron Wetmore and Union President Mike Dunn led the project in Milford. Wetmore said he knew Bill Lavin, founder of the Sandy Ground project, from when they were both counselors at a burn camp. Lavin asked Wetmore to organize the Milford effort.

“It’s unbelievable,” Wetmore said of the crowd gathered in Milford Saturday.

The firefighters’ union made James an official member at the ceremony, and handed his parents a union plaque with James’ name on it.

More than 300 people were involved in building the playground, which Wetmore said cost between $70,000 and $80,000.

Friends and family of the Mattioli’s attended the dedication ceremony, as did the families of other Newtown victims, Lavin said.

Bagpipers filled the air with somber music and first graders from St. Mary’s School sang Angels Watching Me. Later, a bell installed on the playground was rung, and Lavin said that was inspired by the holiday classic movie It’s a Wonderful Life.

One of the lines from the movie, Lavin recalled, is “every time a bell rings, an angel gets their wings.”

The bell rang many times on Saturday as children climbed atop the new structure, testing its slides, ladders — and its bell.