Janie's legacy of laughter and love: After toddler’s death, parents pursue memorial playground

A 17 months old, Janie Zahradka heads toward the playground at Edgerton Park in Maplewood. (submitted photo)

Tony Zahradka holds his daughter, Janie, on a swing at Casey Lake Park in North St. Paul when she was about 7 months old. She died less than a year later, on Sept. 30. The family is donating money toward toddler-friendly structures at the playground in her memory. (submitted photo)

17-month-old Janie Zahradka peeks out of an opening in a tube at Edgerton Park in Maplewood. (submitted photo)

Showing off her fun-loving personality, Janie Zahradka plays inside at about 9 months old. The girl died about nine months later, on Sept. 30. (submitted photo)

Janie, full of smiles, enjoys a ride in a bucket swing at the park. (submitted photo)

Tony and Sarah Zahradka are planning to add a playground for younger children out at Casey Lake Park. The tot lot will be in memory of their 18-month-old little girl Janie. (Linda Baumeister/Review)

‘Laughter of other children’  may help healing

Kaitlyn Roby
Review staff

When Janie Zahradka was 7 months old, she sat on her dad’s lap at Casey Lake Park in North St. Paul to swing, because the playground wasn’t built for someone her size.

“She was always the happiest when she was outside playing,” said her father, Tony Zahradka, an assistant baseball coach at Johnson High School and teacher at Guadalupe Alternative Programs on St. Paul’s West Side.

“[Casey Lake] was a fun place to play, but we always said, ‘Boy, it would be nice if this place was a little bit nicer and more friendly to younger kids.’”

Just six weeks after 18-month-old Janie’s sudden death on Sept. 30, the Zahradkas are pursuing a plan to add features their daughter could have enjoyed at Casey Lake Park. They have already raised more than $6,000 toward a $20,000 goal.

Janie’s mom, Sarah Zahradka, is a fashion designer for Target’s infant and toddler clothing line. The couple lives in North St. Paul and Janie was their only child. It makes sense to them to use the donations they’ve received in sympathy cards for something Janie would have loved.

“She was a really happy and fun-loving kid and we just feel like that’s kind of a nice way for her spirit to come back,” Sarah said.

“The laughter of other children, you know?”

No warning, no explanation

After a busy day that included attending a birthday party, Janie went to sleep at her usual time in the evening Sept. 29, Tony recalled. She was a perfectly healthy 18-month-old, he said, but she was “gone” by the time he went to wake her up in the morning.

And then, the Zahradkas had to wait, as the medical examiner investigated how it could have happened. It was only recently the answer came — “sudden unexplained death in childhood” — which is basically only an answer because every other possible cause has been ruled out.

It’s similar to sudden infant death syndrome, but is 45 times rarer and can occur in children from a year old to early teens.

In Janie’s obituary, the couple asked that memorials be sent, instead of flowers. They still received many bouquets along with the cards stuffed with cash and checks. $50 here. $100 there.

For weeks, they couldn’t do much more than grieve.

“The first two or three weeks were hell on earth,” Tony said. “Then we kind of turned a corner after about a month. We had these donations, and we had to do something with them.

“As it was fresh in our minds and in everyone else’s minds, we wanted to get rolling on something for her.”

It took a while to find a use for the money. They considered donating to sudden-death research, but the $5,000 they had seemed like an awfully small amount compared to the problem. Plus, it might not have the local impact or drawing power they hoped for to include others in remembering Janie.

But one day, they received a brochure in the mail from North St. Paul’s Parks and Recreation Commission, encouraging people to donate to the park fund.

That was it.

Tangible way to remember

Although the Zahradkas now have the difficult task of explaining to people how they lost Janie, they’re enthusiastic about the park plans, even speaking over one another in their enthusiasm to explain the park idea. “A park ... people can send their money and know it’s going there.” “Their children can play on it, and they can have a way to remember her, too.”

“We may be the parents, but a lot of people were grieving through this whole thing. They were grieving for us and grieving at the thought of losing their own children.”

Before they returned to their jobs, the couple spent a weekend at Faith’s Lodge, a Wisconsin retreat started by a couple whose daughter Faith died in the womb two weeks before her expected birth.

It’s a place where bereaved parents or those with seriously ill children can take some time to gather their strength, talk about their grief to others in similar straits and start to think about the future. The Zahradkas found it invaluable to meet people who knew exactly what they were going through, and Sarah said other families encouraged them to pursue the park idea.

“If it wouldn’t have been for [Faith’s Lodge], I don’t think we would have been strong enough to go back to work or carry on with this,” she said.

The difference in having this goal: They aren’t constantly overcome with heartache.

“We still shed tears every day thinking about her and certain things that remind us of her,” Tony said. “We’re getting to the point where we can think about her with some happy memories.

“We’re hoping with the park that we can look at that and smile at how much fun she had there, and how much fun she would have had there, and how much fun other children will have when they play there, too.”

Possibilities for park

Following the Zahradkas’ presentation to the North St. Paul City Council Nov. 5, the city is moving quickly, too, to put plans into action. The park commission will meet this month with the family to start discussing possibilities for Casey Lake Park, according to Terry Furlong, the commission’s council representative.

The commission has already opened a fund at Anchor Bank, all proceeds of which will go toward revamping its equipment or adding features for younger children, he said.

“The playground structure is pretty old down there,” Furlong said. “Adding something to it or redoing the whole thing would be a good improvement.”

According to Furlong, it’s the first time someone has approached the commission with money to be put into a park.

“We’re pretty touched by someone donating money and to be able to build something down there to have those in Janie’s age group use that park,” he said. “It’s going to be a benefit for all of us.”

He said that there will most likely be some kind of memorial for Janie at the park.

The Zahradkas are not only willing to discuss the park project with people, they’re thankful it’s made it easier for others to approach them.

“This helps us get through it, to have something positive for people to talk to us about,” Sarah said. “It can often be awkward for people to approach you after you’ve lost a child. I think it’s every parent’s worst nightmare. This is something that people can relate to. They want to help.”

Although losing Janie cut a wound that will never heal, as Tony put it, the park is a “ray of hope.”

“We have to find a way to move on and hopefully have more children down the road and think about our children playing at that playground,” Sarah said. “We don’t want to be that lonely couple that decided this was going to ruin the rest of their lives. We hope that we’re a happy old couple who has taken something horrible and turned it into something wonderful for a lot of children.”

Donations can be sent to: Janie’s Memorial Playground, Anchor Bank, Attn: Kristi Murray, 2700 Seventh Ave. E., North St. Paul, MN 55109.
Checks should be made payable to: Janie’s Memorial Playground.
To follow the progress, like the Facebook page at: www.facebook.com/janiesmemorialplayground.
For more information on sudden unexplained death in childhood, go to www.sudc.org.

Kaitlyn Roby can be reached at kroby@lillienews.com or 651-748-7814 or find her at twitter.com (@KRobyNews).

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