Six months after the Sandy Hook shooting, the families of the 20 children and six educators killed inside the Connecticut school are in Washington to bring awareness to gun violence, while back home officials are preparing to break ground on more of the 26 regional playgrounds being built to honor each victim.
Jillian Soto — whose sister Victoria, a teacher at the school, was killed in the massacre — is scheduled to appear on Capitol Hill Thursday, a day after relatives of victims Daniel Barden, Lauren Rousseau, Jesse Lewis, Dylan Hockley, Mary Sherlach, Ana Marquez-Greene and Benjamin Wheeler traveled to Washington to commemorate the anniversary.
“I thought it was important to be there so it wasn’t a date that was just forgotten,” Neil Heslin, father of Jesse Lewis, told the Hartford Courant.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and congressional Democratic leaders will be on hand at the press conference, while Republicans, including House Speaker John Boehner, plan to meet with victims’ relatives as well. A “Remember the Victims” event also will be held on Thursday, with a reading of more than 4,500 victims lost to gun violence since the Newtown shooting. Residents of Newtown will later read the 26 victims’ names.
The White House said President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden will meet Thursday with relatives of the victims. Obama spokesman Jay Carney said the White House commends the families' courage and determination to push for legislation to reduce gun violence. Legislation to expand background checks for gun buyers failed in the Senate in April.
Biden will also hold a gun control event at the White House on Tuesday.
Members of Newtown Action Alliance, a nonprofit group created in the aftermath of the shooting to reduce gun violence, are also planning a series of events on Thursday, including a contingency of advocates who will hand deliver to members of Congress a list of gun violence victims and a letter demanding universal background checks during gun purchases.
Meanwhile, in Connecticut, 26 playgrounds are taking shape across the region, with each one showcasing a victim’s interests, including the moon and flamingos. Heavy rain has postponed a ribbon-cutting planned for Friday at a playground dedicated to 6-year-old Dylan Hockley at Long Lots Elementary School in Westport. On Saturday, ground is expected to be broken for a playground at a school in Stratford honoring Victoria Soto, the 27-year-old first-grade teacher who was killed while hiding students in a closet.
The playgrounds are among the "Sandy Ground Project: Where Angels Play," an effort led by the Firefighters’ Mutual Benevolent Association of New Jersey. Most are slated for communities in New Jersey, New York and Connecticut, states hit hard by Superstorm Sandy and linking the two tragedies with a common name.
For Hockley’s relatives, watching Dylan’s 8-year-old brother Jake crack a rare smile was comforting while helping break ground on the project.
“Jake was right in there,” Ian Hockley said. “he dug the first shovelful and he was working in the Bobcat and was acting as the foreman, helping direct the team. 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.”
Dylan’s purple playground features the moon and butterflies, two of his favorite things. Soto’s playground in nearby Stratford will be pink and have a flamingo theme. Each playground takes about a week to build and will collectively cost roughly $3 million.
“If Vicki could have had flamingos as a pet, I think she would have,” sister Jillian Soto said. “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.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.