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Volunteers gather to rebuild ‘Joey’s Park’

volunteers began work on a new Joey’s Park, an old-fashioned barn-raising that mirrors the community outpouring from a generation before.

John Tlumacki/Globe staff

Volunteers like Kristin Lawhorn began work on a new Joey’s Park, an old-fashioned barn-raising that mirrors the community outpouring from a generation before.

BELMONT — Tim Brodigan remembers playing at Joey O’Donnell’s house as a kid. Breathless games of capture the flag, video games on the Intellivision. Jelly beans with hot chocolate for a snack.

Joey had cystic fibrosis, and his physical therapist would often come after school. Joey and the other kids would all run and hide, to keep play time going a bit longer.

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“I remember everything,” Brodigan said Friday.

Joey died when he was 12, and a few years later the whole town helped build a playground in his honor, an idea his friends came up with.

Brodigan is 40 now, with three kids of his own. On Friday, he came to see a host of volunteers begin work on a new Joey’s Park in an old-fashioned barn-raising that mirrored the community outpouring from a generation before. He’ll be among them soon.

“It’s special to be doing this all over again,” Joe O’Donnell, Joey’s father, said at a kickoff event. “Here it is all these years later, and nice things are still happening. It’s the way it ought to be.”

After Joey’s death, O’Donnell, a prominent Boston businessman and philanthropist, and his wife, Kathy, started the Joey Fund, which works in partnership with the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation and has raised hundreds of millions for research.

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On Friday, the O’Donnells wore red T-shirts left over from the building of the original Joey’s Park in 1989.

Joey O’Donnell’s parents,  Joe and Kathy, and local students.

John Tlumacki/Globe staff

Joey O’Donnell’s parents, Joe and Kathy, and local students.

As the playground started to show its age in recent years, the idea for a replacement took hold. Residents have again rushed to lend a hand, many of them Joey’s childhood friends who now take their own children to the park.

All told, hundreds of volunteers, along with professionals from Suffolk Construction, will team up in the coming days to build the wooden playground, which features a castle-like design that pays tribute to the original. The playground should be finished in mid-October, with high school students, church groups, and parents of young children all doing their part.

“It says everything about the community,” O’Donnell said.

The new park, beside the Winn Brook Elementary School where Joey once was a student, will feature a hill slide, a merry-go-round, and a pavilion and walking path. And perhaps most exciting, a 60-foot zip line.

“He’d love this,” Kathy O’Donnell said of her son. “Especially the zip line.”

“It’s wonderful to keep his memory alive,” she added.

Diane Miller, an architect who has helped oversee the project, said the old playground had a magic to it, filled with different ways to go and places to hide. The new design seeks to recapture that sense of wonder, she said, helped by grade-schoolers who offered ideas.

Joey O’Donnell

John Tlumacki/Globe staff

Joey O’Donnell

“It’s a playground that leaves a lot of room for imagination,” she said.

The old playground had reached its end, she said, and structural issues were beginning to crop up. The playground closed briefly two years ago after a safety review raised concerns, and reopened only after equipment that did not meet current code was removed.

But in rallying to build something new, residents have tapped into the same civic spirit that built the original Joey’s Park, back when today’s parents were in middle school.

“It’s community building as much as playground building,” Miller said.

On Friday, 200 volunteers from Vertex Pharmaceuticals turned out to work on the project, many of them scientists who have been involved in the development of ground-breaking medicines for cystic fibrosis.

For the O’Donnells, the project clearly struck a nostalgic chord. And for boyhood friends of Joey, the day took them back.

Andrew Plunkett, a classmate of Joey’s, recalled carrying him on his back during soccer games. Joey may not have been able to run, but he sure could steer, shouting a series of directions to Andrew from above.

Kanchan Relwani and other Vertex Pharmaceuticals volunteers helped on the project.

John Tlumacki/Globe staff

Kanchan Relwani and other Vertex Pharmaceuticals volunteers helped on the project.

“He loved it,” he recalled.

People are still rallying around him, he said, all these years later.

“It’s a really cool thing to see,” he said.

One day at Joey’s Park, Brodigan’s young daughter asked who Joey was. He explained that Joey had been his friend when he was a kid.

“It was cool to tell that story,” he said.

With a new park being built, Joey will be “fresh in everyone’s minds again,” he said.

Peter Schworm can be reached at schworm@globe.com . Follow him on Twitter @globepete.

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