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After storm and massacre, Jersey firefighters find a way to heal

Published: Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2013 11:00 a.m. CDT

(MCT) — For the first time since Hurricane Sandy devastated New Jersey’s shoreline and a gunman opened fire inside Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., firefighter Bill Lavin feels OK.

For a while, the president of a 5,550-member New Jersey firefighters union said he felt “demoralized and crushed and depressed.” But now he has new focus: building 26 playgrounds.

The effort led by the Firefighters’ Mutual Benevolent Association will put playgrounds, one for each of the 20 children and six school employees who died in Newtown in December, will in states hit hardest by the storm — New Jersey, New York and Connecticut.

The firefighters need to raise about $2 million.

“Everyone I spoke to had a tear in their eye,” Lavin said. “And the response from the families validated that I needed to do this.” He reached out to the families of all 26 shooting victims. The 16 he’s heard back from are on board.

Jenny Hubbard, mother of Catherine, a Sandy Hook first-grader who was killed, sent a note thanking him for thinking of the idea. It was so fitting, she said. Her daughter loved Sundays because she got to go to the playground.

“She would climb and jump and swing so high, she was convinced she was touching the clouds,” Hubbard wrote. “I know that she is thrilled with the prospect of having a park in her honor.”

Each playground will have its own flair, a representation of the victims and the things they loved.

For Jessica Rekos, horses and whales. For Grace McDonnell, lots of peace signs. For Dylan Hockley, the color blue.

Lavin’s idea was born before the young victims.

It was a few days after Sept. 11, 2001, when a bundle of letters arrived at the Elizabeth Fire Department in Elizabeth, N.J., where he worked. Third-graders from North Bay Elementary School in Bay St. Louis, Miss., had scrawled messages of encouragement — “Hang in there,” one said to the World Trade Center first responders.

It helped them through dark days, Lavin said. When Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast four years later, the firefighters had one question. Was the North Bay school damaged? The hurricane had all but destroyed the school, they learned.

The New Jersey firefighters reached out and agreed to build a new playground for the children. They raised the funds and made it happen. It was a powerful moment, a sweet — if increasingly distant — memory, Lavin said.

Then, a week after the Sandy devastated the Jersey Shore in October, Lavin’s phone rang. It was a man from Mississippi. People in the state remembered what the firefighters had done for them and, now they wanted to pay it forward. They held a toy drive, and in mid-December a trailer full of wrapped Christmas presents arrived.

Now, it’s New Jersey’s turn.

The firefighters have received nearly $300,000 in donations for the Sandy Ground project, Lavin said. They have set up a website ((www.thesandygroundproject.org.) A groundbreaking ceremony for the first playground in Sea Bright, N.J., is tentatively set for the first weekend in March and will honor special education teacher Anne Marie Murphy.

Sea Bright, a small Jersey Shore borough that lost its entire business district to Sandy, welcomed news of the project.

“People are still struggling to get back on their feet,” Mayor Dina Long said. “This is a symbol of hope; it’s more than just a playground.”

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