North St. Paul couple donates $34K for toddler park in daughter’s memory

North St. Paul City Council member Terry Furlong, who also works with the Parks and Recreation Commission, left, stands with Tony and Sarah Zahradka. (Kaitlyn Roby/Review)

The story of Tony and Sarah Zahradka moved hundreds of people throughout the Twin Cities area to help build a park for younger children in North St. Paul.

With the help of many donors over about two months, the North St. Paul couple recently contributed $34,350 to a fund for a toddler-friendly play structure at Casey Lake Park.

They presented the ceremonial check to the city at the Feb. 18 North St. Paul City Council meeting.

“We are so proud to be able to donate this in order to build a beautiful new playground ... a memorial of our daughter,” Sarah said at the meeting. “I’m sorry for the tears, but they come with it. We’re so lucky ... to live in this community.”

The couple’s 18-month-old daughter, Janie, died unexpectedly in September.

It was “sudden unexplained death in childhood,” which is essentially deemed the cause of death when every other potential cause has been ruled out. It’s similar to sudden infant death syndrome, but 45 times more rare, and has been seen in 1-year-olds to young teenagers.

The family spent many afternoons at Casey Lake Park in North St. Paul, but it never quite suited someone Janie’s size. 

Shortly after their daughter’s death, the mother and father set out to build something there that Janie would have loved.

They thought the laughter of other children could help them heal; that something good could come out of something so devastating.

The couple decided to use the money sent to them in lieu of flowers to help build the tot lot. They then began collecting donations to fund it further.

Their story spread through social and traditional media, inspiring readers and viewers throughout the region to make contributions. Meanwhile, the Zahradkas worked with the city’s Parks and Recreation Commission to design the playground.

So far, the top choice is a colorful, nontraditional set from Play by Design, a New York company that creates “unique, whimsical” structures that are community-built. A memorial to Janie is also planned.

If all goes well, it could be built this year.

“It’s not going to be your typical playground, but more of a magical area for kids to come and see,” said Terry Furlong, a council member who works on the parks commission.

“Their daughter Janie has inspired all of us. We want to keep that story going.”

A public hearing on the playground is on the parks commission’s Wednesday, Feb. 26, agenda. The meeting is 6:30 p.m. at City Hall.

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.

To follow the progress, like the Facebook page at:

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

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

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