Zahra's ground

A day that would have been Zahra Baker’s 12th birthday was mostly filled with persistent rain and mud.

Nearing 10 a.m. Wednesday, however, steady droplets turned to a drizzle, then a mist, until the downpour finally ceased.

Hickory officials, local law enforcement members and project donors stood with umbrellas and raincoats as soppy soil was turned at the site of the future Zahra Baker All Children’s Playground.

The groundbreaking followed nearly a year of Kiwanis Club fundraising that has generated more than $170,000 for the playground — a total that nearly doubles an original goal.

On Wednesday, officials and donors unveiled specific details about the playground project that will be completed in spring 2012. As its name suggests, the structure will be accessible to and enjoyed by all children, regardless of personal disability or ailment.

“The sadness of (Zahra’s) situation brings us to this point of hope,” Salvation Army Capt. Mike Harris said Wednesday.

Harris, who is also a Kiwanian, said many children will be able to use the memorial playground with joy. He said they will be children with hope of a future — a future that Zahra never had.

Zahra was a disabled girl from Australia who died in Sept. 2010. Earlier this year, Elisa Baker pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in relation to Zahra’s death. She faces up to 18 years in prison.

“Zahra Baker overcame two bouts of cancer, but that didn’t affect her. She would throw down her prosthesis and wrestle in the mud just as hard as the boys,” said Hickory Mayor Rudy Wright. “Adults let her down, and I’m so proud Kiwanis stepped up. This epitomizes the giving character of our people."

Using more than half of the funds generated, Kiwanis, the city of Hickory and several contractors will begin site preparation for the playground in January. It will be completed in spring 2012, said Mack McLeod, Hickory Parks and Recreation director.

The playground will feature swings, slides, a music station, multiple tree houses and monkey bars — all of which will be accessible by wheelchair ramps and specially designed stairs. The base of the playground will be covered in a rubberized, “pour and play” surface that is safe and easily maneuverable by all children, McLeod said.

“We had minimum safety and accessibility requirements that we wanted to see in the playground,” McLeod said. “The goal is that all children of all ages and abilities can participate and play on the playground.”

The area will also feature a memorial plaza that will house a permanent etching of Zahra’s face with the words “Zahra, you touched us” printed next to it. The plaza will also list the names of donors to the playground.

“We think people from more than 100 miles away will use this playground,” Wright said.

Along with friends Wednesday, J.C. Epting, a Kiwanian and donor, examined renderings of what the playground will look like. He said the structure is possible because of the hundreds who donated in the past year.

“We’ve felt all along this will be a success because there has been so much interest,” Epting said. “Everyone has been interested in something that will help many kids in a permanent way.”

Kiwanis Club President Steve Aarons said thousands have donated to a playground that will be accessible to children who are blind, autistic, use a wheelchair or have other disabilities.

“We embraced this idea immediately,” Aarons said. “We are going to be serving this community now for decades to come."