By Lee Ann Sides Garrett
For the Salisbury Post
Students, faculty and members of the community gathered behind China Grove Elementary School on Friday to remember and heal. Patty’s Playground, a new addition to the school’s play area, was dedicated in memory of Patricia Eleanor Burgdoff.
“Patty,” an 8-year-old second-grader at the school, was killed by a drunk driver in December near Gary’s Barbecue.
A sea of pink-faced children sat on a hill facing the play area in the heat and listened intently as principal Terry Whitesell talked about the little girl.
“Patty touched the lives of many people on this campus and beyond,” Whitesell said. “She never knew a bad day. I’m sure she’s looking down on us and smiling.”
The play area includes two sets of four swings painted bright red and yellow, a bridge, concrete playpad, railroad ties, mulch and a special plaque. Money for the addition was raised through a school and community fundraiser called “Pennies for Patty”.
Whitesell came up with the idea for the memorial while on vacation during spring break. Patty’s parents had told Whitesell that she loved to play and be outdoors. He proposed the idea to the Burgdoff’s and they loved it.
“It was the perfect way to remember her,” Donald Burgdoff said.
This is not the only such project for Whitesell. A memorial garden was installed next to the cafeteria to remember another 8-year-old student, Deanna Williams, who died after being hit by a car on Miller Road in March 2006.
The community, staff and parents helped to make both projects possible by contributing labor to Deanna’s garden, and money and time to Patty’s Playground.
Whitesell says he “felt in awe of people’s kindness.”
“The love and emotion that went into this project has helped us all with the grief process,” Whitesell said.
The principal relayed stories about the kindness of his students. A group of fifth-grade girls raised $67 with their yard sale. One kindergartner brought in his piggy bank. Some students brought in their birthday money. Jars were placed in local businesses and, to date, more than $7,500 was raised for the project.
The first week, there were two 5-gallon buckets of coins. Then two more. Whitesell says he still has a partial bucket and there are still containers left out in the community to be picked up. The extra money will be used for upkeep of the play area.
Patty’s parents, family and friends attended and everyone laughed, cried and shared memories. Burgdoff, who had been called back into active duty in the military, traveled from Fort Bragg for the dedication.
“Everybody in this community knows what happened and everybody pitched in and we appreciate that,” he said. “This proves no one has forgotten.”
Burgdoff says his family is doing their best to heal and are attending grief counseling.
“You never know what you have until it’s gone,” he told the crowd. “Cherish every moment.”
Patty was riding with friends, Shania and Michael Thompson and Thompson’s son, Justin Morgan, when the accident happened. They all attended and shared stories. Shania says Justin had known Patty since they were 4 and in day care together. They later began calling themselves boyfriend and girlfriend.
“They were always together,” she says.
Justin has returned to school and she and Michael have both returned to work. Shania, who was 7 months pregnant when the accident happened, gave birth to a healthy baby boy Feb. 16. She says they’re all doing okay, but “we have our days”.
As part of the ceremony, Whitesell called up members of Patty’s family to be the first to sit on the swings. He asked everyone to think about Patty as Colin Raye’s “I Think About You” played, a song that was part of a video tribute to her at the funeral home.
A recurring story at the dedication was one of Patty’s dreams. She wanted to own a yellow Hummer and drive with her boyfriend to New York, where they would live. She was saving money to buy the Hummer.
Looks like part of her dream will come true.
As part of the addition to the play area, Whitesell has commissioned Playworld Carolinas to construct a Hummer. It’s really a firetruck modified to look like a Hummer, and it’s red with yellow trim, but it will have a license plate that says “Patty’s Hummer”. It should arrive next week and be placed between the two sets of swings.
Yes, Mr. Whitesell, Patty is smiling.
By Lee Ann Sides Garrett