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Planned playground honors three Schaffhausen girls

Plans have begun to raise funds and build a playground dedicated to the memory of the Schaffhausen sisters, shown here left to right: Amara, Sophie and Cecelia. Submitted photo1 / 2
These images show examples of playgrounds completed by Unlimited Play and dedicated to the special kids who inspired the build.2 / 2

RIVER FALLS -- Commenting about the plan to develop a special playground honoring the memory of her three daughters, Jessica Schaffhausen said she'd like to see the focus on Amara, Sophie and Cecelia - and more so on how they lived than how they died.

"I just want something positive to come from this," she said.

A St. Croix County jury found her ex-husband, Aaron Schaffhausen, guilty April 16 of three counts of first-degree intentional homicide in the deaths of their daughters last July. His sentencing hearing is scheduled for July 15.

Jessica Schaffhausen wants to deflect attention away from herself and onto the projects at hand, but acknowledges people want to know how she's doing.

She is somewhat "better" having the trial finished. She attended it as needed: When her husband entered his plea, the day before and of her testimony, and when the jury read its verdict.

Jessica returned last year to her former job with the Metropolitan Area Agency on Aging in St. Paul, where she is a social worker helping senior citizens going home from a nursing facility and giving counsel on health insurance and Medicare. She said coworkers have been phenomenally supportive.

Schaffhausen has considered switching to work that involves teenagers or learning something new. However, based on what she's learned in therapy, she'll wait a while before making any major-change decisions.

The 32-year-old confides that the change of scenery helped last year when a former roommate whisked her away to China and India for a month. The friend's husband has family there, so it was more insightful than typical tourism.

She said it was interesting to see how other cultures handle pain and suffering. Schaffhausen admits a love of eating and said she enjoyed the foreign food.

Asked if she plans to stay in River Falls, Schaffhausen nods yes and says,

"This is where my girls are," adding that it's made a good difference for her living on the opposite end of town and making a different routine.

Asked about the house in Highview Meadows where she'd lived with her daughters, Schaffhausen said she didn't own it and isn't sure of its fate. She hears it is headed for foreclosure and realizes someone could buy it.

She mentions feeling badly for the neighbors whose property values are affected.

Asked what she personally wishes would happen to it, she says it would be the perfect structure for the fire department to burn down in a training exercise. Maybe then, says Schaffhausen, the spot could become a place of peace and positivity -- a community gardening plot or other concept that brings a general benefit.

Schaffhaussen realizes that her daughters knew more people than she did and says everyone suffered a loss from the tragedy. She appreciates the many forms of local support and said feels "well cared for."

Schaffhaussen can barely keep track of all the efforts going on that help push toward something positive.

There's a stained-glass memorial Girls Scouts planned for the River Falls Public Library; a scholarship fund established by the soccer association; memorial trees and a bench installed in a park near their former home; people send mementos, memorial messages and reach out to her.

Schaffhausen said she attends the activities as she can. It usually depends on how she's doing that day.

Sometime this summer, Schaffhausen plans to hold an exhibit and sale of her daughters' artwork to raise money for the playground.

Schaffhausen credits much of her own endurance to the "amazing support" of her family and local man-friend Matthew Peterson, whom she met and began dating before last July. She observes that her situation would scare most people away. Instead he's been there for her -- telling her every day that she can get through this and survive.

Schaffhausen said several months from last year remain "fuzzy" to her, but she remembers people talking that summer about a memorial playground for the girls. One of her general supporters happens to live in St. Louis and knew of the nonprofit organization Unlimited Play, which builds inclusive playgrounds that are "universally accessible" to all people.

What began then as an idea has progressed into the company making a commitment to design, build and help raise funds for a three-part playground. Each of the three sections will symbolically relate to one of the Schaffhausen girls.

All involved with the progressing plan, including City Administrator Scot Simpson, emphasize that a location for the playground has not been identified. Planners will ask for space in Hoffman Park, the preferred location.

Simpson confirms that the Unlimited Play organization will present its concept to the city late next week.

Schaffhausen said Hoffman is symbolic since she and her daughters usually stopped at the large park on the way to and from home.

They'd hike or bike to the public library, Greenwood Elementary, Glen Park and other places. The girls' headstones in Greenwood Cemetery sit near the park they all loved.

Their mother likes the Unlimited Play concept of playgrounds accessible to everyone. She comments how her daughters were always good with friends who have special needs, having friends at school and knowing of their mom's social work.

Victoria Schmitt Babb, community engagement director for Unlimited Play, said the nonprofit company started in 2003 at the kitchen table of a mother with a special-needs son. She got tired of seeing him be unable to play on traditional equipment.

Put simply: The organization takes on the management of projects like this, helps the community raise funds, and builds the uncommon play equipment. It can manage only a limited amount of projects and has a waiting list.

Schmitt Babb said the power of a playground is strong, and UP's go "above and beyond ADA accessible." She's heard of people traveling an hour to use one.

She confirms that each section will have a special theme and said details of the design may be released after the organization presents it to the city. Schmitt Babb emphasizes that the location is not confirmed and that Unlimited Play will respect city processes throughout the project.

She describes the structures and surfaces on which they sit as "state of the art," accommodating any kind of person as well as any kind of special need -- including mentally or physically challenged kids and senior citizens who use a cane or walker.

She uses the example of kids with cochlear implants. They cannot use most play structures since the friction they produce can discharge the person's implant. A UP structure is made of material that doesn't produce the friction.

Schmitt Babb says she's talked to veterans who use a prosthetic and appreciate the even, spongy surface -- which also allows wheelchair access -- as opposed to wood chips or mulch.

The playgrounds also feature a fence around the whole thing, shaded areas, ramps to higher levels such as a slide, and a sensory-rich environment.

Unlimited Play usually dedicates the facilities to a special-needs child in an extraordinary situation or one who is gravely ill. Schmitt Babb said there is a playground dedicated to her now-late nephew.

She comments, "It's comforting to go there and see kids playing and laughing and giggling," and adds that the structures offer free, outdoor, active entertainment.

Schmitt Babb said the estimated cost of the Tri Angels playground is $550,000. The nonprofit organizes the effort, tracks progress and works to find applicable grants, but it relies on the "philanthropic spirit of communities" to complete projects.

She said the periods of fundraising vary in length. Some playgrounds get built within months while others may take years.

Schmitt Babb said the facilities typically last at least 20 years then can be maintained through parts replacement, resurfacing and other upkeep

Seniors at River Falls High School, Samantha Jensen and Hannah Bellrichard, along with a committee of about 10 people, have been working to organize a fundraiser for the playground: The Tri-Angels 5k Fun Run, 8 a.m. July 20, beginning in Hoffman Park.

Jensen volunteered in Sophie's classroom at Greenwood. Bellrichard is the daughter of the St. Croix County victim-witness coordinator who assisted Schaffhausen.

The two said they wanted to do something to help.

Jensen said about the idea of a 5k-for-fun, "It just kind of came to me, and I said, 'Hannah, we should do this.' "

Bellrichard said, "And I was totally on board with that."

Schaffhausen is letting the committee "run with" the event planning but says she'll run at the event. She kept with the plans she'd made with daughter Amara to start running together as the girl conditioned herself for soccer season.

The RFHS seniors emphasize that the 5k is for family friendly fun. People can feel free to bring their strollers and small kids to walk or run. Nothing will be timed, and nobody will be competing, though they say entrants can win some 'fun door prizes.'

Jensen and Bellrichard said the committee welcomes all the help it can get. It needs many volunteers to help set up, take down, work the course and stuff registration packets. The group needs people to register for the race, as well as donors and sponsors to give.

The organizers say they have about 35 registrants already, and all the proceeds from the race go to Unlimited Play for building the Tri Angels playground.