“When a devastating house fire near Myersville killed sisters Sophie and Madigan Lillard nearly five years ago, their family members developed a plan to honor their memory through the construction of a destination playground.
After years of unwavering love and support from the community, the three-phased playground is making serious headway at a new planned location in the future Westside Regional Park at Hargett Farm in Frederick.
“It’s been five years since the girls passed away and we’re ready for something to be here for them,” said Chrissi Lillard, the mother of Sophie, 6, and Madigan, 3.
Roughly five months after the Jan. 31, 2013, fire, the nonprofit Sophie and Madigan’s Playground was formed to raise money for the playground through fundraisers geared toward the girls. The fundraisers have included pirate- and princess-themed 5K runs and “Pink Friday” events that raised money for the cause through a portion of Black Friday shopping profits at local businesses. Community members also participated in runs to raise awareness of the girls and the cause, and Lillard said a team is raising money to participate in February in the Disney Princess Half Marathon in Disney World on behalf of the nonprofit.
Lillard said about $400,000 has been raised for the playground. And once the current plans are finalized at the Westside Regional Park site, Lillard said she and the fundraising team can begin soliciting donations from corporate sponsors.
The playground was originally set for inclusion in the planned West Park Village development on the site of the VFW clubhouse and golf course on Old National Pike. While awaiting the developer’s dedication of the land to the city, however, Lillard said the other location came up as a better fit.
“It was purchased by a developer around the same time that the girls passed away,” Lillard said of the land inside the future West Park Village.
“They promised we could do it there, but the developer still hasn’t dedicated it to the city. Until that happens, it still isn’t available,” she said. “We went to the city several times and hoped something would pop up.”
The Board of Aldermen approved a plan for the multi-use Westside Regional Park on roughly 130 acres of vacant city-owned farmland along Butterfly Lane at the beginning of the year that includes a spot for a destination park.
Bob Smith, the city’s deputy director of parks and recreation, said members of the Westside Regional Park Task Force and the city’s Parks and Recreation Commission have discussed dedicating land for the playground inside the park. He said the idea received favorable recommendations from both groups and officials are working up a memorandum of understanding between the city and the nonprofit to build the playground on what Smith said is a “small footprint” of the site. The playground is tentatively slated for what is known as the “Festival Area” of the regional park, which is adjacent to Butterfly Lane just east of the farm structures.
Smith said he hopes construction of the playground will begin in the summer. Lillard said the playground company informed her it will take about a month to put the equipment in.
“Hopefully the first phase will be finished in fall of 2019. That would be really great,” she said.
The latest blueprints for the playground include three different “lands” — Fantasyland, Neverland and Wonderland — made up of custom equipment, and details reflecting the girls’ spirits and personalities.
“It is all completely themed to those things the girls really enjoyed,” Lillard said.
She said she hopes to break ground on Fantasyland first, which she called the center of the project.
Fantasyland is princess-themed and set to include an enchanted castle, pumpkin carriage, hidden dragon, woodland cottage, whimsical swings, and horses adorned with Sophie and Madigan’s favorite things. Neverland has a pirate theme and will include amenities such as a pirate ship, lost boys club house, skull rock, zip line, mermaid lagoon, hidden treasures and Tiger Lily village. Plans for the “Alice in Wonderland” themed Wonderland include a tea party spinner, rabbit hole log, mushroom house, large butterfly and flower shades, card soldier maze and a Red Queen flower garden. The entire playground is multi-aged and will include accessible ground coverings and transfer platforms.
Lillard said she is glad the playground is finally coming to fruition and looks forward to breaking ground.
“The park has always been our central mission,” she said. “We want the park to be there as a physical reminder to the girls.”
Follow Mallory Panuska on Twitter: @MalloryPanuska”