OLYMPIA - The smell of fresh bark and the sound of children's giggles filled the air at Julia Butler Hansen Elementary School last week.
Children bounced on a U-shaped teeter-totter, navigated through a curvy set of monkey bars and glided through the air like giant pendulums on a grape-colored swing set.
The happy, high-energy place is exactly what Zachory and Amanda Beers had envisioned for “Charley’s Playground,” built in honor of their 6-year-old daughter, who died last June.
“Charley’s favorite thing was to swing,” Amanda Beers said. “She was full of life and absolutely went out of her way to make friends with everybody.”
Charley died of complications from a Group A strep infection June 28, just a few days after completing kindergarten.
With blond hair that she usually wore in pigtails, a big smile and a sweet personality, she was “just a shining little star,” said principal Ernie Rascon.
Charley’s parents began a playground fund with memorial donations that they received from family and friends.
Within about six months, they had raised nearly $24,000 – enough money to practically double the school’s playground area, replace some of its older equipment and create a reserve for future projects.
Charley’s Playground was built for a fraction of its value – about $14,000 – thanks the contributions from numerous companies, Amanda Beers said. For example, Columbia Granite near Rainier donated a large slab for an engraved memorial marker that will soon be placed at the school; a company out of Portland gave the school a huge discount on the playground equipment; installer Lew Cox greatly marked down his services; and Jamie Eklund of Lew Rents contributed heavy-duty equipment and machinery to finish the project, she said.
And on Feb. 12, more than 60 people came out to spread bark on the playground, including several members of Capital High School’s football team. Charley was one of their biggest fans, according to her parents.
“The outpouring from this community is what has kept (our) heads above water,” Amanda Beers said. “The smallest of acts have given us hope. I am so very thankful for each and every person that loved Charley so much.”
The playground opened on Valentine’s Day following an all-school assembly at which Rascon talked a little bit about Charley and her family. He also went over rules for the new area.
“The No. 1 rule – the one that should be known the most – is be kind,” said fifth-grader Alexander Sanchez, 10.
Charley’s little sister, Georgie, who is in kindergarten, was among a group of children “randomly selected” to be the first to play on the swing set.
“Funny how it turned out that way,” Rascon said, chuckling. “Just coincidental, you know.”
The swing set has seven black seats and a yellow one for Charley. It was her favorite color, her mom said.
Many of the children at the school never knew the little girl, but that didn’t mean they didn’t comprehend the family’s grief – or their generous gift to the school.
“When you swing, you can think about Charley,” said fifth-grader Anna Beeler, 10. “I bet she was a great kid.”