The city held a ribbon-cutting to dedicate the Zahra Baker memorial playground’s official opening Saturday morning. As soon as the ribbon was cut, dozens of children flooded onto the playground. They laughed and played as the adults lingered at the entrance to read the bronze plaque. It is inscribed with her portrait and the words, “Zahra, You Touched Us 1999 – 2010.”
Some children sprinted and others rolled their wheelchairs over the spongy rubber safety surface covering the ground under the new bright equipment. The initials ZB marked the entrance to the play structure. Up to four children slid down the 50-foot-long hillside slide at once.
The children may have been unaware that the playground’s namesake was a cancer survivor who lost her left leg, part of her lung and much of her hearing to the disease. It was in recognition of her struggles that the playground amenities were designed to accommodate both able-bodied and special-needs children alike.
A pair of wheelchair-bound sisters, Megan, 16, and Morgan Bibbee, 9, sat side-by-side with matching grins as they took a ride in a giant purple boat-shaped piece of equipment as their father rocked it back and forth. From there, it was on to the wheelchair-accessible swings.
He reflected for a moment as his daughters enjoyed the swings: “Zahra wanted to be like the other children even though she was different, and that’s just how we want to be treated.”
People from across the city, county and region volunteered their time, efforts and money to make sure the playground got built. Once the funds and equipment were in place, the Hickory city public service workers and the engineering staff shouldered the burden of making sure everything was in place and done right.
Zahra was 10 years old when she was murdered in September 2010. Her stepmother, Elisa Baker, pleaded guilty to the crime in September 2011. She was sentenced to a maximum of 18 years and six months in jail. As a part of her plea agreement with prosecutors, Elisa led Hickory police and SBI investigators to the rural locations where she dumped Zahra’s dismembered body.
“This is just another example of a community coming together and remembering Zahra,” said Hickory Police Chief Tom Adkins. “We have been able to turn something negative into a positive for this area’s children.”
At first, the goal was to raise $85,000 to build the park. When that goal was achieved and surpassed, the new goal was $150,000. As each subsequent goal was met, hopes and efforts increased. In the end, $200,000 was raised for the park.
The money paid for the park’s equipment including a play web with interactive features, a sand area and much more.
“One single piece of the special-needs equipment cost $25,000,” Hickory Mayor Rudy Wright said.
The brightly colored equipment brings new life to one of Hickory’s lesser-known parks.
“This was a perfect way to rejuvenate this park,” said Hickory’s Ward 2 Councilman Bruce Meisner. “The key word is commitment – this just shows that Hickory is a can-do area. When we put our minds to it, we can do anything.”
It took the efforts and gifts of thousands to make the dream of a park in honor of Zahra’s memory a reality.
“This is the culmination of the way Hickory does things,” said Wright. “That little girl is going to be remembered. People are going to come here and say, ‘I’ve got to do something to make sure no other children are abused.”
“I can’t think of a better tribute to Zahra than this playground,” he said.
Watch a video of WBTV’s news report. There is a brief commercial before the video: