Community is set to celebrate Ben’s Red Swings

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When Chris and Hendrika Layton think back a decade, it’s with heartfelt appreciation for volunteers who, in the spirit of selfless dedication, built a playground in memory of their son.

Four-year-old Ben Layton died from leukemia in 2002, and, in his name,  his parents sought to improve the dilapidated amusement at City Park.

Ben’s father, Chris Layton, an emergency room physician, grew up in Salisbury and played there. “It was medieval,” he said during a telephone interview from the family’s home in Colorado.

When pieces broke, his wife recalled, city workers hauled them away, but never replaced them.

Medieval was transformed into meaningful in 2004 when 4,000 ambitious volunteers came together to compose Ben’s Red Swings, named for the little boy’s touching desire to get red angel wings when he arrived in heaven.

On June 14, the family and community will celebrate the 10-year anniversary of the playground. There will be vendors, foods and activities but, most importantly, memories shared.

Chris Layton still marvels at the way the community “rallied around that event.”

“I never saw anything like that, ever. The money was raised in six to nine months. There was just an outpouring,” he said.

He’s convinced he and his wife found the strength, the energy, to concentrate on the playground from the humanitarian volunteers, especially so soon after the death of their son.

“There is true love in that community,” Chris said.

“The city surprised us beyond our wildest dreams,” Hendrika said.

When the family returns to Salisbury for the celebration, “It will be collectively, as a village, honoring, the playground,” she said.

The day will begin at 9 a.m. with the Ben Layton Memorial 5K Run and 2-Mile Fun Walk, to benefit the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.

“What used to be there, it was pathetic compared to what’s there now,” Chris Layton said about the new playground, which cost about $175,000, including in-kind services. Approximately $250,000 was raised. Now, supporters are trying to raise another $50,000 to add softer, rubberized surfaces, plus $50,000 for a project the family is discussing with Salisbury officials, but won’t yet reveal.

On the Ben’s Red Swings Community Playground Facebook page, a message from the family explains the plan to add solid rubber surfacing under the swings and slides “to keep those areas more level.”

“We are also hoping to increase our maintenance fund to be able to continue to regularly add mulch, sand, and replace worn out equipment,” the message says.

“There’s a lot of love on that playground,” Chris Layton said, as the couple talked about how, in the tragic face of losing a child, life changes, and the focus becomes gratitude.

This year, Ben would be 16. His brother Josh is graduating from high school and his little sister Elise, who his mother was expecting when he died, is 11.

Ben died in late May, “so it kind of coincided with building the playground,” said his mother, who remembered how energetic the boy was.

“We talk about Ben all the time and we have pictures of him everywhere, all over our house,” she said. “He is still just as much of a brother to our kids as ever. He is a very important part of our family.”

Reach Susan Canfora at scanfora@newszap.com.

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