Sep 27, 2013
By Bruce Bobbins
That initial bite of the mountain of soft-serve orange and vanilla swirled ice cream piled up and dripping out of the wafer cup cone always marked the real first day of summer for me – even more than the fact that June 21, the official start of the Summer Solstice, is my birthday.
So like so many others who grew up going to the Jersey Shore, and especially Seaside Heights and Park, I was greatly saddened — and, in fact, overwhelmed — watching the massive flames engulf the Kohr’s Frozen Custard Shop (and much of the rest of the Boardwalk) there just two weeks ago. It was a gut-wrenching blow – coming less than a year after Hurricane Sandy ravaged almost the entire Shore. The images of the Ferris Wheel then drowning in the Atlantic are indelibly etched in my mind. It was also just two or so months after the Boardwalk re-opened, albeit in a much condensed area – a sterling and inspiring manifestation of the motto that carried us Jerseyans through the tumultuous time (even before the tagline was ”invented” by Gov. Christie): ”Stronger than the Storm.”
My wife and I had driven down earlier in the summer to see the Shore’s Phoenix-rise from the depths of despair. Of course, the real reason for our trip, which took over two-and-a-half hours of stop-and-go traffic to go about 45 miles, was because we had an almost insatiable craving for a Kohr’s original (even though I am lactose intolerant, it is so scrumptious, it is worth the stabbing stomach pains and a few extra bathroom breaks). By the way, it’s a craving that dates back to my high school years, when a half dozen or more of us seniors would skip Friday classes, jump into a friend’s Camaro with the stereo blasting at ear-shattering decibels and speed at about 80 miles an hour down the Garden State Parkway to spend the day lying in the hot sand, wadding in the ocean, playing a little miniature golf and what was then 25 cent arcade games (and yes, looking at girls – none of whom ever resembled or sounded like Snooki or JWoww – and drinking illegally-obtained cans of Bud or Miller).
I’m confident that Seaside and the Shore will survive, rebuild, and come back as strong as ever. I’ve already seen it – and not just that day when my wife and I hopped in the Toyota Rav 4 (hey, I still have a kid in college so I need the extra cargo space) for a heavenly ”creamsicle”-run. Indeed, I have had the great privilege over the past few months to work on an account here at DKC called ”The Sandy Ground Project: Where Angels Play.” This is an initiative established by Bill Lavin, president of the New Jersey Firefighters Mutual Benevolent Association, and his fellow firefighters to respond to both the devastation along the East Coast from Hurricane Sandy and the senseless violence wrought against children and their teachers at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT. They are building 26 playgrounds in 26 storm ravaged communities in NJ, NY and CT in an effort to help restore and rebuild these communities. Each playground is being named to honor the memory of one of the 26 children and teachers killed in the Newtown massacre.
I was at the groundbreaking of a playground being built in Highlands, NJ – one of the most devastated but unknown towns along the Jersey Shore – weeks ago. This playground is being named for Daniel Barden, the youngest child of Jackie and Mark Barden. You can vividly imagine how heart-wrenching, and heartwarming the dedication ceremony was, with tributes from family members, not just from the Bardens but other Newtown victims as well.
The project has its origins back to the 9/11 tragedy when a teacher in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi had her 3rd grade class write letters to Lavin and his fellow members of the Elizabeth, NJ Fire Department who were First Responders to the WTC attacks in an effort to brighten their lives. Four years later, that elementary school was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina and when the Elizabeth firefighters went to help rebuild the region, they asked the school principal what was needed most, and the answer was a playground. The firefighters raised the money to actually build three 100% handicapped accessible playgrounds – the first of their kind in all of Mississippi.
Fast forward to today: One week after Hurricane Sandy destroyed most of the NJ coastline, Lavin received a call from a Mississippi businessman who remembered him and his fellow firefighters and what they did for the children there. The businessman explained that children down there were going to ”pay it forward” by collecting Christmas gifts for the NJ children affected by the storm. A trailer of over 1,000 toys arrived back in Nov. 2012. Lavin and his colleagues were deeply moved and their spirits soared when they started distributing the toys to children along the Jersey shore. Then the unthinkable happened – the crazed gunman stormed his way in Sandy Hook Elementary School and massacred two dozen children and teachers in cold blood. Shortly thereafter, the firefighters received a letter from a current third grade student in Mississippi thanking them for the playground they built years ago. Bill was inspired and thought, ”why not build playgrounds for children right here in storm ravaged communities and name them in memory of the Newtown victims.” Of course, one of the playgrounds would be built in Newtown itself. Thus was born ”The Sandy Ground Project – Where Angels Play.” Thus far, nine playgrounds have been built and dedicated.
After more than three decades as a public relations professional, I could and should be a hardened skeptic and cynic. We are an industry too often maligned for being akin to the stereotypical used car salesmen (with better clothes, of course), ”spin-meisters” and ”hucksters” who will do just about anything to sell our clients as the next best thing since the invention of”¦well, the ice cream cone.
It has never been this way for me, however. How could it be when I felt the tears rolling down my cheeks listening to Mark Barden say how The Sandy Ground Project playground is the best way to honor his son’s memory – more important than the funds that have come the family’s way because it is all about helping other children have normalcy in their lives, a place where they can just be kids and have fun despite all the tragedy around them. And I heard similar words from the family of hero teacher Victoria Soto when a playground in Stratford, CT was dedicated in her memory—which Mark Barden helped build, just as he has a number of the other playgrounds!
This unparalleled opportunity to be even a minute part of something so powerful, so essential, so inspiring, so life-transforming is what has driven me to come to work here at DKC every day for the past decade-and-a-half. Simply put, the pay-off is infinitely sweeter than even a Kohr’s original.