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Sandy Ground Project

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The forecast called for rain, but the sky was bright and sunny in Union Beach, New Jersey on Friday morning as 11-year-old Ben Pinto took hold of a drill and broke ground to build a jungle gym in honor of his younger brother Jack, one of the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.

The playground is to be built more than 100 miles away from Newtown, along the Jersey Shore in a town that was ravaged by Hurricane Sandy.

It is part of the Sandy Ground Project, collaboration between New Jersey Firefighters and a local nonprofit that will build 27 playgrounds in areas devastated by Hurricane Sandy. Twenty-six will be named specifically for the Newtown victims, the twenty-seventh will honor first responders who aided in Connecticut and during Hurricane Sandy.

"We realized it was exactly the kind of thing that would have made Jack proud," Dean Pinto, Jack's father said, during the ceremony.

Jack, 6, was a New York Giants fanatic. So much so, his parents chose to have him laid to rest in a Victor Cruz jersey. The Giants' blue and red colors are just one way the playground will have Jack's imprint.

"The Pinto family has given us a handprint of Jack, and we are creating a mold so his handprint will be here forever. This way, we will always be able to touch Jack's hand," said Patti Dickens, the founder of R.A.I.N.E., a non-profit that is part of the Sandy Ground Project.

Before the groundbreaking, an emotional ceremony was held, during which children from Union Beach read the names of the Sandy Hook shooting victims aloud, and then released balloons shaped as white doves into the air.

"A playground is more than just a structure, it is a symbol of birth, of recovery and of hope," said Bill Lavin, the president of the New Jersey State Firefighters Mutual Benevolent Association, which is behind the Sandy Ground project.

Lavin came up with the idea to build playgrounds for the Sandy Hook victims in areas destroyed by Hurricane Sandy after getting a letter from a nine-year-old girl in Mississippi, thanking the NJSMBA for playgrounds the group built years ago in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.

"It is cathartic for our membership," Lavin said of the playground building process, "Because our job is to keep kids safe, and when they're not safe it is a failure of our entire system."

"The goal of building the playgrounds is to really give these families a lasting memorial that is here for these children," said Dickens, of R.A.I.N.E., which serves New Jersey children in crisis.

After the ceremony Ben Pinto and his father got to work helping the firefighters build the playground, something they say Jack would have loved.

"I think he would just be happy we're helping other people who have been hurt and not just focusing on ourselves, but helping to rebuild a community in some small way," Dean said.

This is the second of the playgrounds to be built through the Sandy Ground project.

A ribbon-cutting for the first, built in Sea Bright, NJ in honor of teacher Anne Marie Murphy, will be held Saturday morning at 1099 Ocean Avenue.

Click here to find out more about the Sandy Ground project.

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