Playground honors memory of little girl

LAKE STEVENS — Grief and joy shared the stage at Lundeen Park on Sunday as about 100 people gathered for the dedication of a playground in honor of Sirita Sotelo, who was fatally beaten two years ago at the age of 4.

“Just know I love every one of you for what you did,” Sirita’s mother, Patricia Sotelo, said through tears to the assembled crowd.

Gary Malkasian, who was Sirita’s eighth and final foster father before she was turned back over to her natural father more than a year before her death, recalled the little girl he tried to adopt. “That someone so young could touch so many people seems amazing to me,” Malkasian said.

Heather Ewell, Sirita’s stepmother, was convicted in 2005 of beating the girl to death and was sentenced to 8 years in prison.

While Sirita’s memory was recalled aloud Sunday by the adults who knew and loved her, children approximately her age clambered over and slid down the play equipment named “Sirita’s Playground” in her honor.

“A lot of other kids will have the chance to play on this playground because of Sirita’s loss,” Lake Stevens Mayor Vern Little said.

The idea for memorializing Sirita started with Lake Stevens resident Teresa Bannon, who had no connection with the family but lived near Sirita and was touched by her story. Bannon approached city public works coordinator Scotty Swift with the idea of planting a tree, and Swift added the concept of building a playground for tots. Swift took the idea to city officials, and the City Council in June approved spending $6,000 on the $14,000 project.

Community groups pitched in, with the Kiwanis Club leading the pack at $3,000. Bennett Homes donated $1,000, as did a Lake Stevens resident who asked for anonymity, Kiwanis Club President Dave Minch said.

A Japanese snowbell tree was planted at a groundbreaking ceremony last month. Saturday, the day before the dedication ceremony, about 20 volunteers assembled the play equipment, Minch said.

“It was a whole lot of work and a whole lot of love that went into it,” Minch said. “Our (Kiwanis) mission is to serve the children, so it was absolutely perfect for us.”

The play set is only a few feet away from play equipment intended for older children, giving parents a chance to keep an eye on all their kids at once.

The hard plastic equipment for tots features slides, platforms, a crawling tube and many small disks, dials and doohickeys that kids can spin around. The plan is to eventually add picnic tables, benches and curbing all the way around the play set.

The building of the playground came on the heels of the passage of Sirita’s Law, which strengthens protections for children who are removed from their parents. Under the law, which took effect last month, state caseworkers must follow more stringent schedules to find a safe home for children. The law also requires all adults living in the family to undergo background checks — something that did not occur in Sirita’s case — among other new safeguards.

Malkasian said he brought 40 ideas to legislators and 12 of them were eventually incorporated into the law. At Sunday’s event, he spoke passionately for still more reforms in the foster care system.

“These kids deserve a better deal than they’re getting,” said Malkasian, a former Everett resident who now lives in Woodinville. “What they don’t need is our tears. What they need is our outrage,” he said.

Patricia Sotelo, now 43, said she has been free for three years of her addiction to crack cocaine, an addiction she passed on to her daughter.

At the event, she carried a bouquet of flowers and was hugged and comforted by friends.

Of the community’s building of the playground, she said, “it’s a great thing.”

Reporter Bill Sheets: 425-339-3439 or sheets@heraldnet.com.

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