Families seek answers for memorial’s removal
STEVENSVILLE — The Children’s Memorial Playground at Old Love Point Park is gone. The playground project grew from the outpouring of community love and support in the wake of a tragedy that took the lives of two babies at an in-home day care in Cloverfields and was dedicated to all the lost children in the county. The playground was dedicated in October 1999. Now, not a trace of it remains. One local mom, Elaine Harrison, is looking for answers.
Harrison said she was excited when she saw the county had allocated money for new playground equipment; she thought the playground was getting a facelift. Instead, everything was removed — every piece of equipment, the dedication signs, the memorial benches and even the concrete containing the children’s memorials.
“The Children’s Memorial Playground built by community donations and zero tax dollars has been demolished. My son’s bench has been relocated to a landfill along with all the other donated benches honoring other children of Queen Anne’s County who died way to soon. They are all gone. Why? Why did they have to redesign the entire playground?” she asked. “What about the memorials?”
Families of lost children had designed memorials in cement squares. They had handprints and names and dates and special designs in them.
“Every square represented a dead child. They lined the walkway along the handicap ramp,” Harrison said. Her son Matthew’s square contained his name, the dates of his birth and death and angels. Ian Denny’s square had his name and butterflies, she recalled.
Matthew and Ian were both 5 months old in May 1998 when they suffocated under a quilt while napping on an adult bed at their day care while their day care provider was holding a birthday party downstairs for her own child.
When her firstborn son died, it felt as if her world ended, Harrison said. It was all she could do just to breathe, but her community lifted her up, she said.
“They gave me air. Every card, every prayer, every hug, every phone call or visit. Each one of them lifted me back up and put the air back in my lungs and, in time, I got my feet under me again …. The love my community offered me saved me,” Harrison said.
A neighbor, Martha Hafner, came to Harrison and Ian’s mom Dawn Denny wanting to create a memorial project for their babies. She suggested a playground. Harrison and Denny endorsed the project, but didn’t want it to be just for their children, instead they decided to dedicate it to the memory of all children.
From Our Darling Angels Day in mid-1998 to the design and planning of the playground over the course of a year, more than 125 people volunteered over 1,600 hours toward the completion of the project and raised the thousands of dollars needed to make their vision a reality.
The Children’s Memorial Playground included two play areas — one for preschoolers and one for older children. It had two swing areas, a sandbox, a climbing structure, a zip line, an overhead climber, a buck-about, benches, landscaping and two structures with slides and climbing activities. It replaced a play structure that had been installed in the early 1980s.
The playground was designed by the children of Queen Anne’s County for themselves and the children of the future in memory of children who have departed, Hafner said at the dedication.
The county provided a place for the playground and promised to maintain it, Harrison said.
She said she spent many hours sitting on Matthew’s bench, dedicated by her Zaidee Lane neighbors, watching her younger sons play at the playground or on the nearby ball fields. It gave her comfort and helped her feel close to him.
Now she feels like she’s lost him all over again. “Matthew’s bench is in a landfill somewhere. They had just as well have gone to the graveyard and knocked over his tombstone,” she said. “The community poured out their hearts and the county concreted over it.”
Harrison said she doesn’t understand why no attempt was made to contact the parents and offer them the opportunity to save their memorials or take their benches rather than destroy them.
Annette Sanger agreed. She posted on the Bay Times Facebook page Thursday, “I would have like to have had a phone call! I would love to have that bench. It was donated by the Kent Island Little league in memory of the son I lost. Thanks for putting it in a land fill. I would ride my bike on the trail and stop to take a few minutes to spend sometime where I could wish my son had a chance to play. I feel like I lost him a second time. It brings back just as much pain.”
John McQueeney Jr., who was county commissioner when the playground was dedicated and one of the large donors, concurred in an interview Saturday, “I think they should have contacted the people beforehand. … I think it wasn’t handled correctly. It’s like the right hand didn’t know what the left hand was doing.”
George O’Donnell, also a commissioner when the Children’s Memorial Playground was built, said he thought it was unusual that someone didn’t say something during the construction phase (this spring) when they saw the memorials. “To think that you could just do away with these things — that’s a mistake.”
Harrison said Parks employees didn’t seem to know what the memorial playground was — they called it the Old Love Point Park playground.
The county commissioners issued an apology on Thursday, June 8, saying sections of the playground had been lost or destroyed.
“This was not intentional or malicious, but simply an oversight due to the passing of years and the lack of clear delineations of the memorials. The county did save the original dedication sign which will be restored and re-dedicated on site during the future unveiling ceremony for the playground,” the statement said.
The commissioners extended condolences to the families and friends affected by the destruction of the playground.
In an interview Monday, June 12, Parks Director Chip Price said it was not their intention to get rid of the memorials.
“We didn’t have any paperwork that said what the memorial was,” Price said. They saved one sign and two of the original benches with the intention of installing new, metal memorial plaques on the new benches. “Nobody really knew who the parents were.”
When they started getting calls last week, Price said he went looking and found one sheet of paper with six names that he believes are the names of the children for whom the benches were dedicated.
None of the workers mentioned the memorial squares; they didn’t see anything, Price said. “It’s a hard thing. We feel terrible about it.” It’s all gone, Harrison said. “... you can’t move the cement embedded with baby names and handprints and donors’ logos and messages of peace and happy children at this park. We carved those messages in cement to last a lifetime,” Harrison said.
“We had left lots of things at our playground that folks could come and see and read any day. The engravings, the sign acknowledging our donors and our children memorialized there. There was another plaque on the top of the ship. The ship of angels was the giant piece of equipment. Our angels could sail off to the heavens. Each piece was chosen with care and semblance.”
And the new play structure is only a fraction of the size, Harrison said.
Price has only been with the county since 2015 and was unfamiliar with the history of the Children’s Memorial Playground, but he did know it was a popular playground.
The equipment at the park got lots of use, but it had developed cracks and needed to be upgraded, he said.
The concrete access ramp had been buckled by tree roots and was no longer usable, and the wood fiber filling had moisture issues, he added.
They’ve installed a newer safety surface, replacing the wood chips with rubber tile, a new, accessible play structure and a pavilion where parents can sit while children play or even hold a child’s birthday party, Price said.
The new playground is part of an overall renovation for Old Love Point Park that includes upgrading the concession stand and bathrooms, relocating the Cross Island Trail out of the parking lot, redoing the parking lot and moving the recycling bins to Terrapin Park, Price said.
The commissioners have pledged to recognize the Children’s Memorial Playground contributors and remember those who were memorialized there.
They are looking for a memorial that can be put in place and kept in place over time, maybe a wall with brass plaques that can be added to over time, Price said.
Parents who want their children included in the memorials can contact the Parks office at 410-758-0835.
Elaine Harrison points out the spot where her son Matthew’s memorial was located.
Some 40 volunteer worked to spread 8,100 cubic feet of mulch and three pickup loads of sand at the Children’s Memorial Playgound at Old Love Point Park. Shown here, Jodie Corder and her 3-year-old son work hard Saturday, Sept. 25, 1999, spreading mulch. The group put in some 250 hours. Steps remaining are the completion of the sidewalk leading to the park to make it handicap accessible and one final load of mulch.
From left, County Administrator Mark Belton, County Commissioner George O’Donnell, Martha Hafner, and County Commissioners John McQueeney Jr. and Marlene Davis cut the ribbon to officially open the Children’s Memorial Playground at Old Love Point Park.