The idea for the project came in a video message from a 9-year-old Mississippi girl.
SEA BRIGHT, N.J. -- The devastation that Superstorm Sandy had brought to the Jersey Shore was hard enough for the firefighters trying to help towns recover, but it was the Sandy Hook school shootings that brought them to their knees.
But then Bill Lavin, president of the New Jersey State Firefighter's Mutual Benevolent Association, received a video message from a 9-year-old girl in Mississippi that gave him an idea of how he could help not just his fellow firefighters recover, but the battered communities as well: Build a playground in 26 towns hard-hit by Sandy, to honor those killed in Newtown, Conn., and to give the people in the Sandy-devastated towns hope.
"As I listened to her speak on the video, I thought that's what we have to do," Lavin said. "We have to get back to the children and supporting them and playgrounds just seemed like the natural thing to do."
And so at dawn Friday, work on the first of 26 playgrounds began at what will soon be an oceanfront park in Sea Bright, with 26 New Jersey children standing by to recognize those lost and to represent those who will play there in the future.
Sea Bright's playground will be in honor of Anne Marie Murphy, the special education teacher who died with her arms wrapped around student Dylan Hockley in an attempt to protect him from the gunfire.
Lavin said the theme of 26 is kept throughout the project, which is called the Sandy Ground Project -- Where Angels Play. Each playground will be 2,600 square feet. Organizers will try to use 26 volunteers. Sweatshirts and T-shirts to raise money for the project cost $26.
The Sandy Grounds project will cost about $2.1 million overall, with each playground costing $60,000 to $80,000. The Foundation to Save the Jersey Shore Inc. joined the firefighters union to build Sea Bright's playground.
Sea Bright Mayor Dina Long said the community was "profoundly grateful" for the donation.
"It's not just a safe place for children to play," she said. "It's a sign of hope and renewal."
Organizers reached out to Sea Bright school children about a month ago to get their help picking out the playground equipment. And they included children in the ceremony Friday.
As the sun just barely peeked over the horizon, 26 New Jersey children grabbed beach buckets filled with sand and bearing the Newtown victims names and emptied them at the shoreline. The waves would eventually wash the sand away, representing how the project would be carried on to the 25 other towns along New Jersey, New York and Connecticut's coasts, Lavin said.
Holly Zbierski, the 8-year-old daughter of a firefighter from Bergen County, woke up at 4:30 a.m. so she could come with her father to Friday's ceremony and carry one of the sand buckets.
"I wanted to help the kids here," she said. "They survived the storm."