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Firefighters raise money for playgrounds after Sandy and Newtown

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By David Ariosto/NEW YORK (CNN) — A reference to the name “Sandy” can evoke painful reminders of last year’s tragedies, be it the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School or an historic storm that wiped out thousands of homes and businesses, and left millions in the dark.

But New Jersey’s largest firefighters union is looking to honor those affected by both calamities and join them and their mutual names into something more positive.

Firefighters have begun collecting donations for the “The Sandy Ground Project,” with 26 playgrounds to be built in communities recovering from the storm — one for each victim gunned down on December 14 at the elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut.

“Our only challenge is to raise the money,” said Bill Lavin, president of the Firefighters’ Mutual Benevolent Association, whose 5,000 members are supporting the $2.1 million initiative on the website thesandygroundproject.org.

New Jersey and New York each are expected to get 10 playgrounds, with Connecticut getting six. The group says it already has gathered enough funds for at least five of them.

The first playground will honor slain special education teacher Ann Marie Murphy and is expected to open on March 1 in Sea Bright, New Jersey, where homes and businesses were devastated by a torrent of wind and water brought by Superstorm Sandy.

The massive weather system barreled into the Northeast in late October and left more than 8 million residents without power.

Two months later, as emergency personnel struggled in storm recovery, a gunman smashed his way into a Connecticut elementary school and gunned down 6 adults and 20 children, the latter between the ages of 6 and 7.

“We were all working and then Newtown happened, and it just crushed the nation,” said Lavin. “People were just walking around in a daze.”

He knew he needed to act, and was later inspired by news of a Mississippi girl who wrote a letter thanking New Jersey firefighters for a playground they helped build in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

“It was so cute,” Lavin said of the child, who was among several Waveland, Mississippi, schoolchildren to donate a truckload of toys to Sandy victims. “When I heard about it, I figured we had to do something for our own kids.”

“After talking with parents and school officials in Connecticut, we decided to do it in honor of those children (who were killed in Newtown).”

The three-week-old project has plans for playgrounds in storm-battered areas such as Toms River, New Jersey; Midland Beach, Staten Island; and Westport, Connecticut.

“It’s Bill Lavin’s project and we are supporting him and thrilled with the efforts that he’s made to build them,” said Jenny Hubbard, the mother of slain 6-year-old Catherine Hubbard.

Lavin said he hopes to raise enough money to surpass his goal of 26 playgrounds, and continue building in places such as Tucson, Arizona; and Columbine and Aurora, Colorado, where mass shootings left scores dead.

CNN’s Jordana Ossad and Brittany Brady contributed to this report

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