TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — The state's largest firefighter union is remembering the 26 victims of December's Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting massacre in Connecticut by building a playground to honor each one in a community recovering from Superstorm Sandy.
New Jersey and New York will get 10 playgrounds each, and Connecticut will get six. Each playground will link the two tragedies with the shared name Sandy to create memorials for recovery and hope.
One 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."
Bill 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.
The first playground, in Sea Bright, will honor special education teacher Ann Marie Murphy. It will include a climbing wall and slides hand-picked by some of the children in town. It may include a dog run because of Murphy's love for her pet. The groundbreaking is March 1.
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."
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, called The Sandy Ground: Where Angels Play, 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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