Bill Lavin, President of the New Jersey Firefighters Mutual Benevolent Association, and his fellow firefighters have created The Sandy Ground Project – Where Angels Play in an effort to respond to both the devastation along the East Coast from Hurricane Sandy and the senseless violence wrought against children and their teachers at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT.
They are building 26 playgrounds in 26 storm ravaged communities in NJ, NY and CT in an effort to help restore and rebuild these communities. Each playground is being named to honor the memory of one of the 26 children and teachers killed in the Newtown massacre.
I was at the groundbreaking of a playground being built in Highlands, NJ – one of the most devastated but unknown towns along the Jersey Shore – a few weeks ago. This playground will be named for Daniel Barden, the youngest child of Jackie and Mark Barden. There were no dry eyes when they said how this playground is the best way to honor their son – more important than the funds that have come their way and the other tributes, because this is all about helping children have normalcy in their lives, a place where they can just be kids and have fun despite all the tragedy around them. And I heard similar words from the family of hero teacher Victoria Soto just the other day when a playground in Stratford, CT was dedicated in her memory.
The project has its origins back to the 9/11 tragedy when a teacher in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi had her 3rd grade class write letters to Bill Lavin and his fellow members of the Elizabeth, NJ Fire Department who were First Responders to the WTC attacks in an effort to brighten their lives. Four years later, that elementary school was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina and when the Elizabeth firefighters went to help rebuild the region, they asked the school principal what was needed most, and the answer was a playground. The firefighters raised the money to actually build three 100% handicapped accessible playgrounds – the first of their kind in all of Mississippi.
Fast forward to today: One week after Hurricane Sandy destroyed most of the NJ coastline, Bill Lavin received a call from a Mississippi businessman who remembered him and his fellow firefighters and what they did for the children there. The businessman explained that children down there were going to “pay it forward” by collecting Christmas gifts for the NJ children affected by the storm. A trailer of over 1,000 toys arrived back in Nov. 2012.
Bill Lavin and his fellow firefighters were deeply touched and their spirits soared when they started distributing the toys to children along the Jersey shore. Then the unthinkable happened – a crazed gunman stormed his way in Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown and massacred two dozen children and teachers. Shortly thereafter, the firefighters received a letter from a current third grade student in Mississippi thanking them for the playground they built years ago.
Bill Lavin was inspired and thought, “why not build playgrounds for children right here in storm devastated communities and name them in memory of the Newtown victims.” Of course, one of the playgrounds would be built in Newtown itself. Thus was born “The Sandy Ground – Where Angels Play.”
Visit The Sandy Ground Project for more information.