GAITHERSBURG – A local family is turning a tragedy into something constructive for the community.
Surviving members of a family broken by the Montgomery County Airpark crash in December 2014 is teaming up with the Where Angels Play Foundation to build a playground in memory of the mother and two small children.
The December 2014 incident was investigated by the National Transportation Safety Board. Rather than landing on the runway, a plane cut through a nearby house, taking the lives of a mother and two boys along with the pilot and two passengers.
“This is really an opportunity for the community to collectively wrap their arms around this wonderful family, this brave man who wants his family to always be remembered,” said Where Angels Play founder William Lavin to the mayor and council on April 1.
The man Lavin was referring to is Kenneth Gemmell, husband to Marie and father to sons Cole and Devin, who were killed in their home when the plane crashed.
Several months ago, Gemmell said he wanted to have a playground built in memory of his family, and he shared that idea in a Facebook post. That was when a friend suggested he contact Where Angels Play.
Lavin said part of the reason for Where Angels Play’s work is to help with the process of healing after grief and remembering something positive from the lives of people who have died.
Other playgrounds Where Angels Play is coordinating include playgrounds in memory of each of the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School 2012 shooting in Newtown, Conn. Lavin and his colleagues arranged for the construction of playgrounds in New Jersey following Hurricane Sandy in 2012 as well. Lavin said family of the Sandy Hook victims will help build the playground in Gaithersburg as volunteers.
Where Angels Play personalizes the memorial playgrounds with things special to the deceased family members, such as a loved one’s favorite color, favorite pastime or favorite animal. Lavin said Gemmell’s surviving daughter Arabelle, now age 12, will provide supervision during the construction processes, acting as Lavin’s “boss” during the project.
City staff and Where Angels Play have signed an agreement, Lavin said. City Director of Art, Recreation and Culture Michele Potter said she is hopeful construction can begin in the fall. First, funds must be raised to pay for the playground. A GoFundMe page was created to receive more funding for the project.
Lavin said the playground will be designed for small children, a playground that children the ages of Cole and Devin might use. It will replace an existing tot lot located at Griffith Park near the city hall.
The organization’s origins are in New Jersey, which, coincidentally, is also where Gemmell and his late wife met.
The playground is not the first way Gemmell has acted constructively after his family’s loss. Gemmell started “a few scholarships at the college where me and Marie met, at Rowan University and also one at the University of Maryland (College Park), to keep it local.”
Potter said that people in the foundation will help with fundraising and labor. The city can help remove the existing playground. Mayor Jud Ashman added that the city is supplying the land for the playground.
A fundraiser for the playground will be held at Bar Louie in Rockville Town Square April 25 6 p.m. to 10 p.m., Lavin said.
Potter said that staff does not know if the existing playground could be deconstructed and given to someone needy in another country who could use it, as Where Angels Play has done in previous projects.
“We’re wrestling with that,” Potter said.
Potter said that donating the used playground was a matter of taking it apart, piece by piece and making sure workers break nothing in the process.
Regardless of whether the old playground can be recycled, Lavin said he enjoys being able to help others whose personal troubles are worse than his – namely, family and friends of people whose lives were taken prematurely.
“Some people call them heroes; I use the term angels,” Lavin said, regarding the victims. “We don’t expect anybody to believe (in) anything that we believe, other than, you know, if you care and love community and children and love (… being part of something bigger,) that’s exactly what this is.”
Ashman said at the end of the presentation that Gemmell’s family is important to the city of Gaithersburg and he is glad that the park will be built.