WATERTOWN (AP) – After Justin and Brittany Zubke lost their 14-month-old daughter Emma last summer, they turned their grief and shock into a way to contribute to the Webster community.
Emma died unexpectedly during a camping trip at Lake Kampeska on June 17, 2018, from bronchial pneumonia. The Zubkes, along with the Webster 4-H clubs and community support, have created a playground at the Webster Fairgrounds in her memory.
"We kind of felt like we had to get our grief out the right way. We knew we had to cry, talk about it, stuff like that. We wanted to try to do it as healthy as possible," Brittany Zubke said. "What we found was healthiest for us and our grief was doing something to still feel like we're her parents.
Emma's Playground, which includes a 12x24-foot sheltered sandbox, spring pagriders, tic-tac-toe board and seating next to the 4-H show ring, was created to keep Emma's memory alive.
Justin and Brittany Zubke attended last year's Day County Fair after Emma died.
"It was hard to watch kids play and to realize Emma would never be a part of this fair, because before Justin and I even got married and had kids, we always talked about how our kids would be in 4-H," Brittany Zubke said.
Missy Bartelt, head leader of the 4-H Dakota Kids, and Stacey Dunse, leader of the 4-H Jolly Workers, put together a temporary play area in Emma's name at last year's fair with plastic pools filled with sand and corn. They saw the area was popular with kids of all ages as a play area or a space to gather.
They started the process of creating a permanent playground in February. Thanks to a grant from the Phyllis Hanse Family Fund and a donation from Brewster Building Center in Milbank, the biggest parts of the playground were paid for. Community members participated in a Tupperware fundraiser and donated money to the Zubkes, the Watertown Public Opinion reported.
"As soon as we put the word out there that we were going to do Emma's playground, it was phenomenal the donations that just started coming in," Bartlet said.
The playground cost about $23,000. The biggest cost was the shelter, which is built to be maintenance-free. Brittany Zubke said she wants her grandchildren to play on Emma's Playground someday.
She was six months pregnant with her second daughter, Elsie, when Emma died. Brittany Zubke said she and her husband worked through their grief as quickly as they were able.
"It's almost like we thought if we did everything in the right order, it would just go away, and we also wanted to do it before the next baby, before Elsie came to join us," said Brittany Zubke.
Part of their grieving process included ordering Emma's headstone, but waiting for it to arrive was a long process. Brittany Zubke's father put a hand-made cross on her grave to mark her resting place in the meantime.
This was the beginning of Emma's Markers, another thing the Zubkes did to not only help with their grief, but also other families who lost children. They would send a wooden cross to people who had lost a child but couldn't bring themselves to order the gravestone or couldn't afford one.
The Zubkes said while they are able to do things in Emma's memory, it isn't easy.
"It really is like a roller coaster and you've just got to learn how to hold your stomach in when you go down those hills," Brittany Zubke said. "Honestly, if it wasn't for these women and our community, we wouldn't have this done because Justin and I physically, mentally, emotionally did not have the energy to do all this."
Justin Zubke agreed, offering advice and encouragement to anyone who has lost a child or loved one, no matter what age.
"Lean on your loved ones," Justin Zubke said. "No one handles it the same so lean on the people around you. We got through it and you'll get through it too. It's a lot better than it was, but there's still certain days that aren't so hot."
Emma's Playground has open space left for expansion. They want to add new things to the playground that Emma would've played on as she got older. The playground is themed with purple butterflies, two symbols associated with Emma.
"I always told myself if I did have a girl, I wouldn't raise her like a pink princess," Brittany Zubke said. "She never had any pink, it was always purple."
Butterflies are a common symbol that represents an angel coming from heaven to visit loved ones, Brittany Zubke said.
The fairgrounds are used for a cattle show and camping spaces during state sporting tournaments as well as the Day County Fair, so Bartlet and Dunse said they think it will be used in spring, summer and fall while the fairgrounds are open.
"There'll be a lot of joy out here," Dunse said.