On the morning of March 17, Kellie Cooke drove to a park in Stamford, Connecticut, to place an Easter wreath on a bench there that bears a memorial plaque for her late grandmother. She had also brought a wicker bunny, with which she planned a second tribute. Near the park is a playground, and in it stands a statue of a green toy soldier, roughly two feet high, dedicated to Jesse McCord Lewis, a 6-year-old killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012. Cooke wanted to pay her respects by leaving the bunny at the little memorial. But as she approached the playground, Cooke met a disturbing sight: The statue had been destroyed.

Vandals had shattered part of the soldier’s neck and smashed off its legs, revealing the metal rebar that held the concrete statue together. Lesions appeared on its helmet, nose, and cheek, where the bright green paint had been scraped off. The figure looked “pushed back to the point where it looks like you had to take a baseball bat and really hit it,” Cooke tells The Trace. “It had to be someone very strong with a lot of power to be able to do the damage that they did.”

Cooke placed the wicker bunny around the army man’s fractured neck and left the park, unable to shake the image. The next day, after alerting city officials and a local news station, she reached out to Jesse Lewis’s family, who shared the meaning behind the soldier statue. In 2013, less than a year after the massacre at Newtown, volunteers with the Where Angels Play Foundation began constructing the first of 26 playgrounds that would serve as “living memorials” to each victim. Every site was adorned with emblems of the victim’s life. Jesse, as Cooke learned, “had an infatuation with toy soldiers,” she says. “He had them in his pockets all the time.” Hence the green army man statue, which is accompanied by three words Jesse wrote on a chalkboard at home days before he died: “Nurturing, healing, love.”

The stories about Jesse prompted Cooke to try and restore what had been ruined at the playground. She launched a crowdfunding campaign to finance a more durable bronze replica, raising more than $3,300 so far. Her crusade has drawn support from local firemen and other community members, as well as messages of another sort. In championing Jesse’s memory, Cooke’s campaign has been targeted by people who believe the shooting was a hoax. “Where’s video from inside school?” reads one comment on the fundraiser page.

Stamford police say the damage done to Jesse Lewis’s playground was random. But it’s not the first time vandals have sullied tributes to Sandy Hook victims. In the spring of 2014, a man stole a vinyl peace sign from a Mystic, Connecticut, playground dedicated to Grace McDonnell, a 7-year-old who died in the shooting. The perpetrator later called McDonnell’s mother claiming he’d stolen the sign because he believed the Sandy Hook shooting never happened, and told her that her daughter never existed.

A week before, a few lines of graffiti — a peace sign, the number two, and the words “Sandy Hook” — appeared on the banner welcoming visitors to Ana Grace Marquez-Greene’s playground in Hartford. The play structure is drenched in vibrant purple, which had been the six-year-old’s favorite color. Later that summer, someone scratched up the sign at the playground for Jessica Rekos. Neither of those incidents have been linked to the hoaxer movement.

Jesse’s statue, his family says, is not just an homage to his favorite toy. It also represents his bravery in death. The morning a gunman stormed Sandy Hook Elementary, a few students cowered together in a corner of one of the first-grade classrooms. When the shooter paused to reload his gun, Jesse reportedly yelled “run!” at his classmates, several of whom were able to escape. Jesse didn’t have a chance to follow. Moments later, he was shot in the head. “Jesse was a real soldier,” said Senator Richard Blumenthal at the playground’s groundbreaking ceremony two years ago. “He confronted evil.”

In the face of those trying to tear down her efforts, Cooke says she’ll keep fighting. “If Jesse can stand up to the gunman like he did to save his classmates, I will stand up to anyone who tries to offend what we are doing.”

[Photo: Bob Luckey Jr., The Stamford Advocate ©2016 Hearst Connecticut Media]