RIVER FALLS — On Tuesday, for the first time, Jessica Peterson walked on the River Falls playground honoring her three slain daughters.
She smiled while mentioning how impressed she was with the colorful shoe-designed slides and other unique equipment, including a microscope, all while holding her newborn son, Flint.
At times, while discussing Tri-Angels Playground, Peterson paused as if overwhelmed by the near-completion of the universally accessible complex that cost about $550,000 to attain fruition.
“I’ve said this before, and it needs to be said over and over again, that this community is amazing,” said Peterson, 36. “Being able to drive by (Hoffman Park) every day and see this physical manifestation of all the love and goodwill that the people in this area have is heart-warming.
“I’m still just kind of in shock that this has happened, and it’s wonderful,” she added, repeatedly glancing at the playground that will officially open Saturday, Aug. 15. “What I always remember is that it wasn’t like there were just two or three big donors, but it was literally lemonade stands, kids doing bake sales and selling bracelets; small business people putting a lot of time and energy into it and adding to the total every chance they could. That’s really what makes it so amazing.”
RCU, Affinity Plus Credit Union and Bremer Bank, along with the Tri-Angels Fun Run, each contributed at least $50,000 to the project. Peterson was impressed by the financial institutions, saying, “They showed that they are not just about making a profit.”
The playground is in honor of Peterson’s daughters, Amara, 11, Sophie, 8, and Cecilia, 5, who were killed in July 2012 by their father, Aaron Schaffhausen, at the River Falls home the girls shared with Peterson. Schaffhausen, 38, is serving consecutive life sentences for the murders.
Peterson said the loss of her daughters hits her every day.
“To a certain extent, part of what makes it possible for me to survive what happened to my girls is building a life that I value and love as much as I did the one that I lost, and putting good things into the world that I wouldn’t want to live without. This playground is part of that.”
Peterson and her husband, Matt Peterson, who has two daughters (Maya and Elliana) by a previous marriage, also have Flint and Trinity (15 months old).
When asked what the playground symbolizes, Peterson responded: “Honestly, it symbolizes community; it’s togetherness, and it’s the light pushing back on the dark.”
The playground has features specific to each of the girls, including soccer balls as well as the shoes and microscope.
“I’d heard about the microscope, but actually seeing it, it’s pretty amazing,” she said. “It’s so much fun, unlike any other playground. I love it.”
Peterson is keenly aware of the playground being visible from the cemetery where the girls are buried.
“I think that kind of just sums up my new reality,” she said. “There was one time when Sophie was over there in that building doing Girl Scouts, and Amara was across the street at soccer practice by Greenwood Elementary, and Cecilia and I were walking back and forth through the graveyard. She asked if she was going to be buried there. I said, ‘No, honey, by the time you die, who knows where you’ll be; likely in a totally different place.’ Now, she’s there, and that’s a hard reality.”
Peterson, whose Pierce County job includes coordinating foster care and certifying day cares, said the support of Matt, family, friends and those in and around River Falls have greatly assisted her over the past three years.
“When asked how I get through what happened, I tell them I don’t know. My next response is, at one point, I made a big decision that I am going to survive this,” she emphasized.
Peterson said she “had to decide every day to keep going and add more and more responsibilities into my life; relationships, children, jobs; things and people that needed me. If you’re trying to live just for yourself, it’s not going to be a very pleasant experience. But if you’re living for other people, it gives you something to get up for every day.”
Peterson recalls being asked about a memorial to the girls shortly after their deaths.
“I wanted something that people could interact with, and a playground just naturally came to mind,” she said, adding that she learned of the universally accessible playground through a friend of her mother. “This is exactly what I would want for the girls.”
The grand opening coincides with the third annual Fun Run, a 5K event that begins at 9 a.m. Aug. 15 at Hoffman Park. The playground grand opening ceremony is set for 11 a.m., and there will be children’s games, food and music by Cloud Cult. Race registration can be made at tinyurl.com/o5j5o6e.
When asked Tuesday what the completion of the playground means, Peterson’s father, Phil Stotz of Springfield, Ill., said: “It feels like it will be the end of a really bad cycle.”
Becky Stotz, Peterson’s mother, added: “All of the hard work that has been done impresses us beyond belief. I have nothing but a big thank-you for all the love and compassion and caring that has been extended. We hope this will be a magnificent playground everyone can utilize.”
While several items remain to be installed, including equipment and signage, Peterson said she’ll know when the project is complete.
“Once it’s got kids climbing all over it, then it’s done.”
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