Hundreds gathered in a New Jersey town on Friday morning to open a playground that will memorialize one of the young victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting and offer hope to children affected by Hurricane Sandy.
The ‘Sandy Ground, Where Angels Play’ park is located in Union Beach, a town hit hard by the devastating storm. Gray skies overhead matched the somber mood of those in attendance, but the sun broke through the clouds at the start of the emotional ceremony.
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The playground will be dedicated to six-year-old Jack Pinto, one of the 20 children slain in the Connecticut school in December. Six educators were also killed.
Pinto, an avid New York Giants fan, was laid to rest in a Victor Cruz jersey. The new playground will be constructed in his honor, complete with a Giants theme.
Pinto’s parents, Dean and Tricia, and his older brother Ben were joined by his grandparents and aunt at the ceremony. State Sen. Joe Kyrillos (R), local officials, and the New Jersey State Firefighters Mutual Benevolent Association (NJSFMBA), which spearheaded the project, were among those present.
"‘The Sandy Ground, Where Angels Play' is a blessed project designed to appropriately honor the children and teachers from Newtown while rebuilding our shore communities.," Bill Lavin, president of the NJSFMBA, wrote in an email. "With an emphasis on family values and hope and recovery, Sea Bright represents the beginning of a project that changes the lives of millions of children and their families for generations."
"I have been honored to meet the families of Newtown, their strength and courage will be an inspiration to all, especially those who continue to work to recover from Hurricane Sandy," Lavin wrote.
Dean Pinto said when he first learned of the Sandy playground project, he knew it "would have made Jack proud." He thanked all those who are making the playground in his son’s honor and all of the first responders, including the state trooper who was assigned to his family after Newtown.
A total of 26 playgrounds, the number of shooting victims from the Sandy Hook Elementary School, are planned across New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. Each one will be dedicated to a victim of the school shooting and designed in a theme that depicts the victim’s life.
Many local nonprofits have united to back the project.
The nonprofit RAINE (Reaching All in Need Everyday) purchased the playground in Union Beach. RAINE was presented by New Jersey Republican Gov. Chris Christie’s office with an American Flag recovered from Ground Zero in New York City at the ceremony.
"It means a lot," RAINE president Mike Fabozzi told the Washington Free Beacon. "It’s an honor for us." He explained that RAINE was formed after 9/11 and continues to help those in crisis. Fabozzi said his group was delivering 20,000 meals a day to those who lost everything in Hurricane Sandy.
Partnering with the firefighter’s union for the playground was a positive step forward, according to Fabozzi.
"It is very important because it brings a sign of hope in the community for the children who lost everything," he said. "It’s a good way to see something positive that comes from such tragedy."
Kyrillos spoke about the town of Union Beach that suffered so much devastation as well as the victims of those in Sandy Hook Elementary.
"It’s coming back, slowly, but surely," Kyrillos said. He said all the communities continue to look out for each other. "We remember the victims, the children, and the adults, we lost in Newtown, Conn. We will never forget them."
The founder of RAINE, Patti Dickens, said the "devastation, destruction, and despair" that Hurricane Sandy wrought when it hit on October 29 paled in comparison to the loss the Pinto family suffered.
While Sandy victims lost "things," she said, "there’s nothing harder than losing a child. We realized our losses were so small compared to what the Pinto family lost."
A handprint of Jack, provided by the Pinto family, will be a part of the playground along with handprints of children of Union Beach.
One by one, children recited the names of the 26 lost in Newtown. Then they released white dove balloons into the sky.
Union Beach Mayor Paul Smith thanked everyone who was part of the project and then pointed out, "The sun came out when this ceremony started, that’s Jack smiling down on us."
One family present was Shawn and Jillian Poling, residents of Union Beach. They were with their two children. They said they came to offer their support for the Pinto family. "It’s great for our town, and we’re here to support Jack Pinto and his family," Jillian said.
"It does bring two tragedies together in two totally different aspects of life," said Shawn.
The first playground built in the Sandy project is located 14 miles south of Union Beach in another town devastated by the storm, Sea Bright, N.J. It will be dedicated to Anne Marie Murphy, the special education teacher from Sandy Hook Elementary, on Saturday, April 6.
The Free Beacon visited that site three days before the planned ribbon cutting and found more than a dozen firefighters working feverishly to complete the project. Retired firefighter Bill Valentine said he has been at the site every day, working alongside other firefighters to see it to completion.
"A lot of us become firefighters not just for the pay, but to help people. Now, I’m still active in helping people," he said.
Retired fireman Joe Candeloro said he has been busy manning the trailer and feeding the workers. He said working on the playground has been worthwhile. But, he added, being on the ground helping Sandy victims within days after the storm hit, "has been gratifying."
The playground project’s idea came from a third-grader in Mississippi, who sent a video to the firefighter’s union. Years after Hurricane Katrina hit, the union went to Mississippi to build three playgrounds for children there. Mississippi then sent a truckload filled with thousands of Christmas presents for children of New Jersey in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.
The tragedy at Newtown propelled a 9-year-old from Mississippi to ask the New Jersey firefighters to begin the Sandy playground project.