By Phil Stilton
RAHWAY–Children across the tri-state area whose local playgrounds were destroyed by the forces of Hurricane Sandy last October may soon be able to return to those jungle gyms, swingsets and monkey bars if Bill Lavin, president of the New Jersey Firefighters’ Mutual Benevolent Association [NJFMBA], has anything to say about it.
His organization, which is now gearing up to begin fundraising and rebuilding efforts for coastal play areas here, was originally dispatched to reconstruct playgrounds in affected coastal communities along the Gulf of Mexico after Hurricane Katrina devastated the region in 2006 in a project called “Pennies for Playgrounds.”
One of those playgrounds was at the North Bay Elementary School in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, where the NJFMBA and approximately 20 firefighters traveled from New Jersey for the effort, which was undertaken in partnership with Save the Children and Mercy Corps. The NJFMBA also raised $400,000 for Save the Children’s after school and child care activity programs there.
“We were blown away that people were still living in tents and children were going to school in trailers,” said Mr. Lavin, recalling a visit to the region at the time. “But when we asked the children what they really needed, they all said a playground.”
Following Hurricane Sandy along the Atlantic coastlines, Mr. Lavin said he learned that the Katrina-affected communities of Waveland and Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, “were collecting Christmas gifts for New Jersey children affected by the storm in an effort to pay it forward to those who had showed such kindness to them in their hour of need.”
“The gesture from Mississippi was an absolute spiritual shot in the arm for the NJFMBA and the hundreds of members who had been serving the coastal communities in New Jersey for the past six weeks in every capacity imaginable,” said the organization’s president. “Unfortunately, just as our members and their families were starting to get their second wind and make some sense out of the Jersey disaster, the unspeakable massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut was reported to the country.”
As a result, the NJFMBA called the new effort “The Sandy Project: Where Angels Play,” and include raising enough money to build 26 memorial playgrounds dedicated to each of the 20 children and six teachers slain in that school shooting.
“Perhaps each playground can reflect the personality of the teacher or child for whom it would be named,” said Mr. Lavin, noting that the work would be undertaken by police officers, firefighters, teachers and volunteers.
The fundraising goal to accomplish this mission has been set at $2 million and so far, according to Mary Kate Lavin, New Jersey playgrounds to will be rebuilt in Sea Bright, Union Beach, Highlands, Normandy Beach, Belmar and Point Pleasant. Others in New York and Connecticut were also named.
Anyone interested in donating or volunteering may visit the NJFMBA website at www.njfmba.org.