Designer picked for Janie Zahradka memorial playground in North St. Paul

The rendering of part of the unique playground from Play by Design

At the Parks and Recreation Commission meeting on Feb. 26, Sarah Zahradka describes the options for an all-ages playground that will be built at Casey Lake Park in North St. Paul as a memorial to her daughter, Janie, who passed away in September at 18 months old. She and her husband, Tony, collected donations for the whimsical play structure.

Tony Zahradka holds his daughter, Janie, on a swing at Casey Lake Park in North St. Paul when she was about 7 months old. She died less than a year later, on Sept. 30. The family is donating money toward toddler-friendly structures at the playground in her memory. (submitted photo)

At 17 months old, Janie Zahradka heads toward the playground at Edgerton Park in Maplewood. (submitted photo)

‘Enchanting’ tot lot may be built this summer at Casey Lake Park

A whimsical, toddler-friendly playground could be built at Casey Lake Park in North St. Paul this summer.

The Parks and Recreation Commission moved the unique play structure one step closer to construction on Feb. 26 by recommending hiring New York company Play by Design, which put together a colorful “Magical Forest Tot Lot” that organizers say would draw families throughout the region.

The commission also hopes to kick in $20,000 from the park fund to build it, adding to the $34,350 a North St. Paul couple already collected and donated especially for the play structure in memory of their 18-month-old daughter, who died in September.

The North St. Paul City Council is expected to consider approving the design at its March 18 meeting.

It could be built yet this year, according to Keith Stachowski, the assistant public works superintendent who works with the parks commission.

With a new shelter with picnic tables and bathrooms also in the works, Casey Lake Park could look very different very soon.

All for Janie

Play by Design’s rendering was Sarah Zahradka’s top choice.

A fashion designer for Target’s infant and toddler clothing, Sarah and her husband, Tony, researched various companies and worked with the parks commission on the design, while collecting donations to build the memorial playground in honor of their daughter, Janie. 

The family used to visit parks throughout North St. Paul and Maplewood. Casey Lake Park is the one closest to their home, but it wasn’t designed for children as young as Janie.

After Janie’s death, the Zahradkas received cash memorials in lieu of flowers, and they wanted to do something meaningful with the money.

A brochure about the park fund came in the mail, and they knew that was it. They could help create something their smiley toddler would have loved.

They started with about $6,000 in November. An “overwhelming response” from donors in the Twin Cities area helped them reach $34,350 recently. Of that, Target retail consulting firm JL Buchanan donated $10,000.

The couple has become spokespeople for the project, and for the awareness of the cause of their child’s death, “Sudden Unexplained Death in Childhood.”

It’s similar to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, where a child unexpectedly dies without explanation, even after every other possible cause is investigated. But, it’s much more rare, and can occur in kids from age 1 to early teens. 

A unique playground

Tearing up during the commission meeting last week, Sarah said it was difficult to talk about the playground and why she and her husband sought to build it.

Her passion for the project, and excitement about her preferred design, was evident as she described it with her husband looking on in the audience.

The preferred design would be made out of composite wood, include structures intended for toddlers and bigger kids, and be Americans with Disabilities Act approved. 

The company’s “community-built” approach was a huge draw.

Play by Design usually collaborates with local students and artists to make tweaks before the final design is drawn up.

Community members and businesses are able to volunteer to help build it, donate money or contribute supplies. The playground is expected to cost about $100,000, but products and labor can be donated to cut expenses.

From the audience, Mayor Mike Kuehn said that financing could be a challenge, but he thinks it’s “doable.”

The design impressed the commission and members of the public. The park looks like a Disney-esque treehouse. Some called it “enchanting.”

“Coming down 17th Avenue, it’s going to be a show piece,” city council member Terry Furlong said at the meeting.

Sarah said it’s full of whimsy and uniqueness. The only other playground like it is in Grand Forks, N.D.

“We want it to be special, because she was,” she said.

How to donate, learn more

Donations can be sent to: Janie’s Memorial Playground, Anchor Bank, Attn: Kristi Murray, 2700 Seventh Ave. E., North St. Paul, MN 55109.

Checks should be made payable to: Janie’s Memorial Playground.

Donations to the park fund can also be tacked onto utility bills.

To follow the progress, “like” the Facebook page at:

For more information on sudden unexplained death in childhood, go to

To read previous articles about the Zahradkas’ story, visit

Kaitlyn Roby can be reached at 651-748-7814 and Follow her at

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