A playground begins the rebirth of Sea Bright

Sunrise ceremony marks start of The Sandy Ground Project: Where Angel’s Play

Staff Writer

 As the sun rises, children stand at the Sea Bright shoreline, poised to empty buckets of sand into the ocean during a groundbreaking ceremony for a new beachfront playground on March. 1. Twenty-six buckets are lined up on the beach, one for each of the victims of the Newton, Conn., shootings.  ERIC SUCAR As the sun rises, children stand at the Sea Bright shoreline, poised to empty buckets of sand into the ocean during a groundbreaking ceremony for a new beachfront playground on March. 1. Twenty-six buckets are lined up on the beach, one for each of the victims of the Newton, Conn., shootings. ERIC SUCAR Just beyond a towering mountain of sand dubbed by Sea Bright residents as “Mount Sandy,” a new playground is nearing completion, marking the borough’s determination to rebuild after superstorm Sandy.

It is the first of 26 playgrounds that are being erected in New Jersey, New York and Connecticut as part The Sandy Ground Project: Where Angel’s Play, an initiative sponsored by the New Jersey Fireman’s Benevolent Association (NJFMBA) in honor of the Newtown, Conn., school shooting victims.

For Sea Bright, it is the first sign of rebuilding since superstorm Sandy blew through the Shore town, leaving devastation in its wake.

“This playground, this is not just a safe place to play for our children, it’s also a symbol of hope, renewal and recovery for our community,” Mayor Dina Long said early on March 1 during a groundbreaking ceremony that reflected on the two devastating events.

The groundbreaking was a renewal of hope that was marked by a special remembrance ceremony for the 26 shooting victims.

Picking up a shovel, Long walked over to a group of 20 young children and six adults holding empty green pails, and proceeded to deposit sand into each bucket as the name of each victim was said aloud.

As the sun rose over the horizon and bagpipes played in the background, members of the community and volunteers followed the group to the water’s edge to watch as each bucket was emptied into the water.

“This project will drift up and down the coast from New Jersey, New York and Connecticut,” Bill Lavin, president of the FMBA, said.

“Playgrounds will sprout up out of the ground so that children will play and celebrate childhood in tribute to all of those [that] couldn’t be here today.” The playground, which is accessible to children with disabilities, was a combined effort between the FMBA and the Foundation to Save the Jersey Shore (STJS), founded by Rumson businessman Warren Diamond, former NFL Super Bowl Champion Phil Villapiano and financial service executive Kevin Leahy.

Members of the NJFMBA were already responding in New Jersey after the October storm, Lavin said, when the Dec. 14 shootings occurred. According to Lavin, the idea for the project began with a letter from a 9-year-old girl in Mississippi, thanking the FMBA for a playground, which was built shortly after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

The organization built three handicappedaccessible playgrounds in Mississippi.

When the letter arrived, Lavin said, he realized a playground was the perfect way to help rebuild the Shore communities while honoring childhood.

“The playground is a symbol of hope that the community is going to bounce back and that children are going to continue to play regardless of how their parents struggle to rebuild their homes,” Lavin said.

“This playground will have our children laugh and have a moment to have peace among all this tragedy. They shouldn’t have to worry about life.”

Many children were laughing already, including 5-year-old Alexandria, of Middletown, who was excited to see the playground being assembled, knowing that she would be playing there when her family visits in the summer.

“For some, this is a big deal,” said Briana Kenney, of Highlands, pointing to the 5-yearold.

“She is excited to hear that there is a park. The little things like this are a big deal.”

Diamond explained that the foundation became involved in the project after Lavin attended a meeting with the STJS and explained the project.

Volunteers for the nonprofit have been assisting storm victims by gutting homes and providing construction materials necessary to rebuild.

“We thought it was important for our organization to get involved in helping rebuild, renew and restore, which is our mission statement,” Diamond said.

“We thought that putting a park in Sea Bright was a sign of that rebirth and renewal, and the tragedy in Newtown was a perfect partnership.”

After the ceremony, volunteers for the STJS began to unload the pieces of the playground, which will be named in memory of special education teacher Anne Marie Murphy, and like a puzzle, began to assemble it on the beachfront.

Among the volunteers stood Erin Kelleher with her two daughters, Dylan and Danielle.

Kelleher lost two waterfront restaurants and her waterfront home in the Highlands, but was given a renewed sense of hope as she helped with the playground.

“We took a triple hit. In light of that, I felt the need to get out and get active because we need all the help we can to bring awareness that our communities have to be rebuilt from the ground up. Life goes on and our children need a place to play,” Kelleher said, wiping tears from her eyes, a mixture of emotion and the cold that blew off the Atlantic Ocean.

“It’s great to see this, especially with the tie into the Sandy Hook tragedy and the fact that these families will have something good come out of something bad in an area that something bad has also happened.”

According to Lavin, once the Sea Bright project is complete, the association will move on to Union Beach, then Staten Island and Connecticut.

So far, 10 towns have been selected, he said, and discussions are ongoing to determine the other the municipalities to receive the playgrounds.

Sea Bright was selected as the first town to receive the playground because of the extent of the damage from the storm, he said.

First responders worked for several weeks to plow through the sand that blanketed the town and took emergency measures to close off gas mains that were leaking throughout the three-mile stretch of the waterfront town.

“Sea Bright was the first town, because we have a close connection with them. A lot of our firefighters responded here. There was a great need and we provided fuel and clothing,” Lavin said.

“It’s a great symbol that residents have come back and that their children will have a place to play.”