By Karen Zautyk
It has been nearly a year since Hurricane Sandy devastated the Jersey Shore. Recovery had been progressing. And then came last week’s fire in Seaside Park, turning 30 still-struggling boardwalk businesses into a massive pile of ashes. Makes you wonder if there is any good news coming out of the beach communities.
Yes there is, and there will continue to be thanks to legions of dedicated volunteers who have been helping the stricken in any and every way possible.
Last December, we wrote a story about members of the Kearny firefighters union, KFMBA 18/218, who had gone down the shore within 48 hours of Sandy’s making landfall Oct. 29 — travelling there on their own time and own dime to do whatever they could to help the residents of the decimated towns.
At the time of The Observer story, more than 70 KFD members had been down there, working just about every day to help people clean out their ruined houses and to begin repairs. The only days they didn’t do storm work was the day after Thanksgiving, which was set aside for their own families, and on Thanksgiving itself, when they served meals at soup kitchens.
The Kearny firefighters are still at it, having recently constructed a Normandy Beach playground that replaced one washed away in the superstorm.
But this is far more than just a playground. It is memorial, part of a state FMBA project to construct 26 such sites in storm-stricken areas of New Jersey, New York and Connecticut.
Each honors of one of the 20 children and six adults slain in the Dec. 14, 2012, massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
The effort is called “The Sandy Ground Project: Where Angels Play,” having been so named by NJ FMBA President Bill Lavin, who is also credited with originating the concept and helping to bring it to fruition with the assistance of FMBA members throughout the state.
Lavin sees the playgrounds as “a symbol of hope” for the Sandy-stricken communities and a way “to celebrate 26 beautiful lives.”
He calls them “a gift to our children and all the children for generations to come.”
Kearny firefighters had asked to take the lead on one of the projects, and it was the one in Normandy Beach, dedicated to the memory and the life of Sandy Hook victim Chase Kowalski, age 7.
The Kearny FMBA raised $18,000 for the playground through school fundraisers and donations from local businesses. Additional funding (each project reportedly costs about $100,000) was provided by the Save the Jersey Shore Foundation. The money went toward the equipment; the labor was provided by FMBA volunteers.
We sat down at KFD headquarters with two of the project coordinators, but just as in December, they requested that their names not be used; they did not want to be given more credit than any of the equally deserving firefighters who performed the work.
Material for “Chase’s Place” was delivered to Normandy Beach on Aug. 16, and construction was completed over the course of two days, with approximately 70 people a day participating. Work was done by the 19th, and the ribboncutting was held Aug 21.
Among those attending the ceremony were Chase’s parents, Rebecca and Steve Kowalski, and sisters Brittany and Erin.
Since the Newtown horror, fundraisers, big and small, have been held across the nation to honor the victims.
However, “this [‘Sandy Ground’] is the only project that the 26 families have unanimously voted to be part of,” one of the Kearny coordinators told us.
The Normandy Beach playground was the eighth to be built. The ninth, in Fairfield, Conn., was due to be completed Sept. 14.
The victims’ families provide input into each individual project, we were told. They help select the playground equipment, since each site is geared to what sort of activities or sports were the favorites of the victim it honors. “They are close to the heart,” a firefighter commented.
The Kearny FMBA members made it a point to thank “the Kearny business owners that donated, the schools that held fundraisers, and the private citizens who donated, too. This was a cooperative effort, a community effort, and we want to thank everyone.”
For more information on “Sandy Ground: Where Angels Play,” visit http://www.njfmba.org.