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Memories of soldier killed in Afghanistan spur volunteers building Amherst playground

Memories of an Army staff sergeant killed in Afghanistan in 2012 were foremost in the minds of some volunteers Friday as they built a new playground in an Amherst park.

The playground accessible to all kids was being erected at Billy Wilson Park, named in honor of the late William R. “Billy” Wilson III, who grew up on Dodge Road in Getzville about a mile away.

Troy A. Springer took leave from his Army base at Fort Benning, Ga., to pick up tools at the park on Hopkins Road. The 33-year-old staff sergeant served with Wilson as a gunner in Iraq before they both deployed to Afghanistan.

He described Wilson as a great motivator who was "always in high spirits."

"Billy was always a really modest person," said Springer. "There's soldiers that go home and make sure they're wearing their uniform so they get thanks. He was never like that."

Asked what Wilson would think of the playground effort, Springer said, "A part of him would be, 'You guys don't got to do this.' ... It would be a humbling moment for him, I think."

The playground is anticipated to open in the last week of June, after the rubber surface is applied and a safety inspection is conducted.

The bulk on the work will take place Saturday, when a horde of over 100 volunteers will descend carrying ratchets and, in many cases, memories of the 27-year-old soldier.

On Friday, four City of Tonawanda firefighters were prepping holes for a ramp mid-morning, getting them level and setting them to grade. Firefighter Jason Malley, who served in the Marine Corps in Iraq, had asked for volunteers during a meeting of the firefighters' union, Local 859.

"Installing a playground is new, but everyone's got a little background in construction. So we're doing as we're told," said Fire Captain Doug Sprague, a family friend of Wilson's parents, Kim and Bill.

What will he think when they can step back and see the 8,000-square-foot playground complete?

"First, that we did it in honor of Billy, but also that we were able to lend a hand," he said. "A few of us have young kids of our own, so we're looking forward to coming out. I'm sure Kim would enjoy seeing it."

The playground was designed to be inclusive of kids with all levels of abilities. Some components include a Sway Fun Glider, which can accommodate two wheelchairs, a roller table with sensory processing for kids on the autism spectrum and an Omni Spin, which has bucket seats at wheelchair height.

"You can have kids in wheelchairs, kids with autism or hearing disabilities, playing with the able-bodied kid and they all get to play together," said Ben Frasier, project manager for local playground designers Parkitects. "They learn about the things kids have to deal with and it's just normal if they can play together when they're young."

Tim Lucey and Dan Riley, general crew chiefs in the Amherst Highway Department, are seeing the project through unexpected challenges, like the auger hitting rocks while digging the 30-inch deep holes that measure 18-inches in diameter.

"All of us here, as much as we do grieve, we all know that Billy would want us to keep driving on, keep doing the best that we can do," said Springer, Wilson's Army pal. "I think he'd be proud. Proud and humbled."

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