Paying It Far Forward: From Mississippi And New Jersey To Long Lots

Tonight, the Board of  Education will vote to build a $117,000 playground at Long Lots Elementary School.

And it won’t cost Westport taxpayers a dime.

It’s a gift from the New Jersey State Firefighters’ Mutual Benevolent Association.

And if you wonder — as I did — why the NJSFMBA is donating a playground to an affluent town 2 states away: read on.

Sandy Ground logo

The donation is part of the “Sandy Ground: Where Angels Play” project. Based in Rahway, NJ, it honors all 26 victims of the Sandy Hook shootings, while also helping communities in the tri-state area hit hard by Hurricane Sandy.

A week after the storm devastated much of the New Jersey coast, Billy Lamb called the NJFMBA state office. The Mississippi businessman remembered New Jersey firefighters, and the playgrounds they built there in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

Lamb said the communities of Waveland and Bay St.  Louis, Mississippi were collecting Christmas gifts for New Jersey children affected by the storm. They were “paying it forward” to those who had showed such kindness in their own hour of need.

During a nor'easter, Gail Cunningham Coen welcomed Waveland mayor Tommy Longo to her Compo Beach home.

During a nor’easter, Gail Cunningham Coen welcomed Waveland mayor Tommy Longo to her Compo Beach home.

(Waveland and Pass Christian are well known to Westport. Gail Cunningham Coen is senior vice president of Keep America Beautiful, and has worked hard to rebuild both communities. She’s even hosted their mayors here.)

In December a trailer containing over 1,000 wrapped Christmas toys arrived from Mississippi, for Monmouth County kids.

The gesture energized exhausted NJFMBA members.  Unfortunately, at the same time the nation was reeling from the shooting of 20 children and 6 adults, not far away in Newtown, Connecticut.

The NJFMBA wanted to do something to help — but how could New Jersey firefighters be productive and meaningful? Suddenly — thanks to the gifts from Mississippi — the playgrounds they’d built 7 years earlier provided the answer.

“The Sandy Ground Project: Where Angels Play” was born.

So 26 playgrounds — in New Jersey, New York and Connecticut — will be built,  in an attempt to connect 2 tragedies that eerily share the same name.

Dylan Hockley

Dylan Hockley

The Long Lots playground honors Dylan Hockley, the little boy who’d moved to Sandy Hook from England 2 years ago, and who died wrapped in the arms of his teacher, Anne Marie Murphy.

The total cost could reach $2 million.  But when NJFMBA members debated whether it could be done, they kept coming up with the same answer. Not only could it be done; it had be done.

Pending approval of the gift (!), construction will begin next month.

But you can thank the New Jersey State Firefighters’ Mutual Benevolent Association any time you want.

(“The Sandy Ground Project: Where Angels Play” can be reached at 1447 Campbell St., Rahway, NJ 07065;; 732-499-9250.)

(Click on the video below, or click here for a direct link to YouTube.)

11 responses to “Paying It Far Forward: From Mississippi And New Jersey To Long Lots

  1. Holly Wheeler

    “And if you wonder — as I did — why the NJSFMBA is donating a playground to an affluent town 2 states away: read on.”

    Dan, I AM wondering why Westport. And I didn’t find the answer by reading your column. I’m wondering … why not some inner-city neighborhood that has a much bigger need for a playground than Long Lots Elementary in the heart of an affluent community ???? I say, pass on this one Westport, and pay it forward to a Connecticut community that REALLY needs it.

  2. Kerstin Warner

    This is such a beautiful gift. If we do accept it (in my opinion, it is so kindly offered that it calls for gracious acceptance and thanks) I’d like to join with other Westport residents to ‘pay it forward’ by collecting and volunteering to build a playground in another community.

  3. As I am reading this I am so confused. I am all for new playgrounds where they are needed, however as I recall Long Lots has a beautiful and fairly updated playground. Perhaps the donors should take a drive around our adjacent communities and realize that it is not needed here in Westport. I hope that the Board of Ed has enough sense to say thank you but no thank you.

  4. It’s a very generous gift and the NJSFMBA is doing a wonderful thing in their efforts to memorialize these children. However our community is much less in need of a brand new playground than are many around us. As Emily mentions above, the Long Lots playground in particular was completely redone very recently and is just not in need of being redone again.

    I’m certain there are plenty of schools in Bridgeport that would not only be appreciative of a new playground, but are also in dire need of one.

  5. Dick Lowenstein

    What other Connecticut towns are receiving this largesse? I concur with the concerns of the other commenters and hope the BOE will politely decline the gift in favor of a municipality that needs it badly, like Bridgeport

    • Dick Lowenstein

      I found the answer to my question: Fairfield (Jennings Beach) and Stratford

      • Holly Wheeler

        From the internet … “Bridgeport, Hartford, New Britain, New Haven, New London and Waterbury are the 6 poorest cities in CT”. Perhaps one of these municipalities would benefit from the three playgrounds earmarked for Westport, Fairfield and Stratford.

  6. Sheila Flinn

    The family of Dylan Hockley chose Westport, because of a family connection here. All of the families got to chose where the playgrounds would be built. Dylan’s older brother will be the “foreman” on the project and the playground will be built using 26 first responders from Westport. They then in turn will pay it forward to another community in the future.