Community support of all-accessible playground 'means the world' to local couple

Sunday, September 2, 2012
Jeff, Andrea and Holland, 2, Cunningham Friday, August 24, at Melaina’s Magical Playland at Cape County Park. The playground is being built in memory of the Cunningham’s daughter, Melaina. (ADAM VOGLER)

Editor's note: Andrea and Jeff Cunningham founded Melaina's Magical Playland. The all-accessible playground at Cape County Park North is scheduled to open in the spring of 2013. It's named in honor of the Cunningham's daughter who died at the age of 3 from complications of nemaline myopathy, a neuromuscular disorder.

We lost our precious Melaina on a Thursday, March 19, 2009.

I wonder how many people can pinpoint the absolute worst day of their lives. That was my worst day. Followed closely by the next day. Followed closely by the next day. Followed closely by the next day. For weeks. For months. I would count the Thursdays.

I would feel guilty when I caught myself singing in the car, because how could I find anything to sing about after Melaina passed away? How could I laugh? How could I enjoy life? Lots and lots of guilt.

I would write down all the things I could remember about her. I was so afraid of forgetting just one moment or just one thing she would do or say. I couldn't look at a calendar for months. It's still hard to look at the month of March.

Groundbreaking ceremony for Melaina’s Playground. (Laura Simon)

Melaina had just turned 3 when she got sick with pneumonia. Her disease, nemaline rod myopathy, made her muscles weaker than average children, and she was always at risk for a respiratory illness.

We had gotten into such a groove before she went to Children's Hospital in St. Louis that it kind of caught me off guard. I had been allowing myself to daydream about Melaina going off to college in the distant future. About her wedding day. Sure, she would "walk" the aisle in a wheelchair, but I would walk with her.

My little girl was a real daddy's girl. She would cry whenever I would leave her hospital room, even to go to the bathroom. When the incredible nurses and doctors at Children's came into her room to tend to her needs, it was Daddy's hand she had to hold. I don't use this word often, but I treasure that. I treasure that in her last days on earth she wanted her dad to be with her at all times.

The guilt I feel even today comes from knowing that there was nothing I could do to protect her from this terrible disease.

I tell you all of this to hopefully help you understand how grateful Andrea and I are for the outpouring of support we've received for the project we've undertaken to honor Melaina and honor her memory.

Jeff and Andrea Cunningham spend some time playing with Holland Cunningham, 2, Aug. 24 at Melaina's Magical Playland at Cape County Park North. The playground is being built in memory of the Cunninghams' daughter Melaina. (ADAM VOGLER)

Our original plan was to take Melaina with us to the playground for which we continue to raise money.

Melaina had weaker muscles than average kids, but she was a normal little girl in every other way. She was smart and sassy. She loved Minnie Mouse and Elmo and music. And she loved going to the playground. The challenge was taking her. The pea gravel surface didn't support her wheelchair and the swings and slides didn't support her.

So, more than four years ago, Andrea decided we would start raising money to build a playground for all kids. Not just children with disabilities, but one that didn't exclude children with disabilities. That's when we started raising money for Melaina's Magical Playland.

We learned quickly that it's a challenging experience. It's also expensive. And that's where you, our neighbors, have shined. We have raised almost $800,000 with your help.

We are incredibly grateful for the donations and the pledges. The hopathons, lemonade stands and hat days. Thanks for taking part in our golf tournament again this year. Thanks for showing your concern when the playground recently got vandalized.

Thanks for the auctions, trivia nights and carwashes. Thanks for the $5 bills in the mail and the corporate generosity. Thanks for the volunteer labor and the expertise in areas in which we fall incredibly short. Thanks for telling us how much your children look forward to playing at the playground.

Please know that anytime you tell us you think our project is worthy of your time or efforts, it means the world to us.

We still need to raise about $140,000, and the plan now is to open Melaina's Magical Playland in the spring of 2013. We look forward to taking Melaina's little sister, Holland, and seeing you there.

We found out we were going to have another baby while in the hospital with Melaina. What a blessing it's been to have our beautiful Holland.

Life continues. You do laugh again and sing and go on. You're never completely whole, and you never will be. And the weird thing is, you want it that way. The pain reminds you of just how special Melaina was and just how much she meant to you and will always mean to you.

So this is a letter of gratitude and thanks. Thank you for helping us with this project. Thank you for supporting it and for honoring our little girl with a wonderful playground. We can't think of a better monument to Melaina than a place filled with laughter and fun.

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