Playground a tribute to playful girl

Healing: A park is planned in Harford County as a memorial to a 6-year-old who was killed outside the circus.

March 22, 2004|By Lane Harvey Brown | Lane Harvey Brown,SUN STAFF

After her best friend's daughter was killed one year ago by a hit-and-run driver outside the circus in Baltimore, Sharon Perfetti began looking for ways to honor 6-year-old Annie Cumpston.

Perfetti helped raise money for a scholarship, but the response from the community was so great that several friends and family members began to wonder if they could do more.

So last fall, they pooled their talents and joined Harford County officials to create a playground as a tribute to the Jarrettsville kindergartner, and to other children who have been lost to illness or accident.

"Just knowing that once this is done, every day there's going to be some kid in Harford County who says her name - `Mom, let's go to Annie's Playground' - it really keeps her memory alive," said Perfetti, who is president of the Annie's Playground Foundation.

Annie's Playground will be the county's first fully integrated playground, allowing disabled children to play alongside friends and siblings, parks officials say.

"It's very healing and helpful. You can't get away from the fact that it happened," Perfetti said. Annie's death is "just such a big part of so many lives right now. ... You've got to do something with all that energy."

A week after friends and family told the Cumpstons about the playground plan, Perfetti said her best friend, Megan Cumpston, reminded her of how much Annie loved to go to parks and play. "If she'd ever known one would be named for her, she would have been so excited," Cumpston told Perfetti.

Spurred by a $50,000 contribution from Cumpston and her husband, Tom, the foundation hopes to raise $240,000 for the playground.

"Everybody's been so kind and generous," Tom Cumpston said, noting all the dinners, prayers and notes from people, including strangers. "Little things like that just made a world of difference - we wanted to give back, and what a special way."

Orioles' broadcaster Jim Hunter, Perfetti's neighbor, is recruiting other sports and radio personalities for a playground fund-raiser May 15 at Edgeley Grove Farm in Fallston, where the playground is to be built. He said that when he mentions Annie, "No one says no."

"Everybody knows the story," Hunter said. "It's amazing how angry the entire community got with what happened to her."

On March 22 last year, as Annie left the circus in downtown Baltimore with her parents and three sisters, a truck careened into the crosswalk at Hopkins Plaza, striking Annie and pinning her against a car. The 6-year-old died hours later.

The driver of the truck, Guillermo Diaz-Lopez, an illegal immigrant living in Halethorpe, pleaded guilty to counts of vehicular manslaughter and leaving the scene of a fatal accident, and is serving a 10-year prison sentence.

Foundation members said they hope an adjacent memorial garden can be a source of healing.

While they are selling engraved bricks to raise money for the playground, Perfetti said they plan to donate bricks at a memorial garden to other children who have died.

"The idea that we've created a place where people who have lost children can go and sit down and be in their thoughts - but in the background there's the laughter of children - it reminds you that life does go on," said Sallie Otenasek, a co-secretary of the foundation whose daughter, Chase, was Annie's classmate at St. Margaret's School in Bel Air.

Annie's Playground will become part of the county Department of Parks and Recreation's development of the more than 200-acre former Edgeley Grove Farm off the U.S. 1 bypass, said Arden McClune, chief of capital planning and development for the parks department.

Soccer fields, a walking trail and amphitheater are also planned for the Fallston site.

McClune said the group's commitment is "a real benefit to the county."

"We could not at this point be dedicating the kinds of funds that they've got to do a playground," she said.

Playground architects Leathers & Associates of Ithaca, N.Y., plan to design the site in October after brainstorming with children at St. Margaret's and Youth's Benefit Elementary in Fallston. Volunteers, with assistance from the local development community, plan to build the park in fall 2006, Perfetti said.

Steve Lutche, a Bel Air lawyer whose daughter, Brigitte, was friends with Annie at St. Margaret's, donated legal help to the foundation and brought the project to the county's attention in November.

Lutche, whose wife, Lucie, is a foundation board member, said the Edgeley Grove property "is a perfect fit" for the playground.

"It's going to be great for the entire community," he said.

Annie's parents agree. Said Tom Cumpston: "Kids will always be able to come and laugh and have fun, and that's what she was all about."

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