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Playground built in toddler's memory after sudden death

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Hundreds of volunteers have been hard at work this week building a North St. Paul playground in memory of an 18-month-old who died of Sudden Unexplained Death in a Child (SUDC) in September, the Pioneer Press reports.

Casey Lake Park was one of Janie Zahradka's favorite places, but the playground there was outdated and not accessible to toddlers, Janie's parents, Sarah and Tony Zahradka, told WCCO. The new nature-themed playground, officially named Janie's Playground, is safe and fun for children of all ages, they say.

Construction began Monday and will continue through Saturday, the Pioneer Press reports. About 150 volunteers gathered at the park each day this week to go over plans, construct the playground equipment, shovel mulch, and serve donated food for lunch and dinner. Some stayed long after their scheduled hours and came back every day.

Janie's parents told WCCO that grief has been difficult, especially without an explanation.

"She was walking, she was running around the house," Janie's father told the station. "So it was very, very, shocking."

SUDC is similar to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), advocacy group the SUDC Program says. It is 45 times more rare than SIDS and can occur in children from 1 year old to early teens.

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

The project has been in the works for several months. At Janie's funeral, her parents asked for donations in lieu of flowers. They planned to give the $5,000 donation to a fund for research into unexpected deaths but decided to support St. Paul's plan to upgrade Casey Lake Park.

"Five thousand dollars isn't much for medical research, but in the community it can go far," Janie's mother told the Pioneer Press. "The power of the community is so touching."

The idea continued to grow as others from across the country began donating to cover the $100,000 cost of the playground over the past six months. Donations totaled $34,350, the city said. The rest of the playground cost was covered by the city of St. Paul and the North St. Paul park fund.

A ribbon-cutting ceremony will take place on the playground at 5 p.m. Saturday.

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