NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) – Firefighters in New Jersey have launched an effort to help the region heal from two tragedies named Sandy.
Members of the state’s largest firefighter union will honor the memories of the 26 children and educators killed in the shooting rampage at Sandy Hook Elementary School by building a playground in 26 communities impacted by superstorm Sandy.
Firefighters are working to raise money to construct the 26 new playgrounds.
“It’s certainly appropriate tribute to their children to have a playground where other children can continue to play. Thus the name ‘The Sandy Ground: Where Angels Play,'” Union president Bill Lavin told WCBS 880’s Jim Smith. “To have children laughing and having fun on a playground that would not ordinarily be there, giving the community hope.”
Lavin said the playground construction gives first responders a chance to divert their emotions.
“Working on something like this certainly is a catharsis for us,” he told Smith.
The project will eventually create 10 playgrounds each in New York and New Jersey and six in Connecticut.
Each playground will have a theme connected to the Newtown victim it honors. The first is due to break ground March 1 in Sea Bright, New Jersey. The playground will honor Sandy Hook special education teacher Anne Marie Murphy and may include a dog run because of Murphy’s love for her own pet.
“This has the potential, I think, to be a national movement,” added Lavin.
Sea Bright Mayor Dina Long said the project is having a positive impact on the community’s recovery after Superstorm Sandy, which flooded neighborhoods, washed away boardwalks and destroyed homes and is considered the state’s worst natural disaster.
“The residents of Sea Bright lost so much from Superstorm Sandy that something like a new playground, besides providing a safe place for our children to play, is also a symbol of hope and recovery,” she said. “It has a far greater impact than just a nice playground.”
Another of the playgrounds will honor 6-year-old Catherine Hubbard, who would stretch out her legs to reach up to the clouds after pushing off on her backyard tire swing and was hopping mad about leaving her beloved swing set behind when her family moved across Newtown, Conn., in October, two months before the mass shooting there.
Catherine’s mom, Jenny Hubbard, said the idea for the playgrounds felt right as soon as she heard it — a playground was the “perfect” memorial for a 6-year-old.
“I immediately could think of Catherine playing and swinging,” she said Friday in a telephone interview. “I know that Catherine will be there and she will love that there are kids to play with on that playground. In a way, this is like us giving her back her swing set.”
Lavin, president of the Firefighters’ Mutual Benevolent Association, a 5,000-member union spearheading the project, said each playground will reflect the personality of the child or teacher for whom it is named. Jack Pinto’s will have a football theme because he was a New York Giants fan. Chase Kowalski’s will have fitness stations because he competed in children’s triathlons. Others, still in the early planning stages, may incorporate a victim’s fondness for a particular color, activity or symbol.
Grace McDonald’s playground will be decorated with peace signs, which she habitually drew on mirrors and windows when they fogged up. Grace’s mom found the outline of one on a window at home shortly after she died and had the glass etched in pink and preserved.
Catherine’s playground, to be built on New York’s Staten Island, will have a tire swing and be near a beach because of her fondness for sea animals. Her 8-year-old brother, Fred, is the honorary project foreman; he’ll be on site with a tool belt supervising as the playground is built by volunteer first responders and members of the community.
Lavin said he’s reached out to all 26 families and has heard back from 14, all supportive. He’s driven to Connecticut to meet with several families personally. After visiting Noah Pozner’s family, he decided Noah’s playground should be in New York in the Rockaway section of Queens, where his grandfather lives.
“So when the family visits, they will see it,” Lavin said.
Noah’s parents, Lenny and Veronique Pozner, wrote after discussing the idea with Lavin that they “could not be happier” he was being honored with the playground.
“We cannot imagine a more fitting tribute for Noah than a playground designed to offer children years of play and interaction with others in their community,” they wrote.
The project will cost about $2.1 million. Enough donations to fund six playgrounds have been received so far.
New Jersey firefighters built three playgrounds in Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and developed a lasting relationship with an elementary school there because of a teacher who is a New Jersey fire captain’s niece.
After Sandy devastated the tri-state region in late October, schoolchildren in Waveland, Miss., where one of the playgrounds was built, organized a toy drive for the New Jersey victims. A truckload of toys arrived in time for the holidays and just after the Dec. 14 Connecticut school massacre, along with a video from a girl thanking firefighters for caring enough to build new places for children to play.
Lavin said it gave him the idea to “get out of our funk” over the Sandy and Newtown tragedies and build more playgrounds.
Though the new project was conceived to honor the school victims, Lavin said he sees no reason to stop at 26. He said the union hopes to build playgrounds in violence-scarred cities such as Newark and Camden and in other states, too.
“While these parks will bear the names of the Newtown victims, they are dedicated to all children of violence,” he said. “This is not just about Newtown. A massacre is occurring one child at a time in our inner cities.”
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