MODESTO — Go by Lakewood Elementary mid-morning on any school day and hear the echo of Kristen Machado's laugh as kids climb, slide and chatter.
Machado spent years in the Lakewood PTA helping raise money for new playground equipment, but it took her death last year from cancer to galvanize the community into making it happen.
"I think Kristen's spirit is with us today. Kristen's spirit will be with this playground forever," said her husband, Matt Machado, in a dedication ceremony Saturday. Two of the couple's children, Noah, 12, and Eva, 9, attend the school.
Lakewood's Jazzy Jumpers team performed. Girl Scout Troop 3380, with daughter Claire, 14, sang the familiar Girl Scout song "Make New Friends." Children loosed dozens of balloons, letting the colorful dots sail skyward.
PTA President John Brasil told a crowd of about 200 that Kristen nominated him, with a trademark grin, for his post nearly a year ago. "Looking back, she put me in a position to make sure her work here was finished," he said.
Her father, Dennis Murphy, called the playground "an amazing recognition of her life." Murphys and Machados from as far away as Colorado came to join in the day.
Machado lost her years-long battle against cancer Oct. 29, just days before her 40th birthday. On Saturday, friends recalled her as a perennially upbeat presence, who shared the challenges of her illness but never dwelt on them.
"Nothing was ever going to get her down," said Debbie Swearingen, who jogged with her in the Turlock running club that Machado founded while a dietitian at Emanuel Medical Center.
'A fitting tribute'
Kelly Gregerson said late last year the idea for a playground took hold. "For years and years we tried to replace it, but it just never came together. With her passing, PTA really said this had to happen. We thought it would be a fitting tribute to somebody who, in the face of all these challenges, has a happy playful spirit," she said.
The bright blue play structures, with a concrete bench and small garden in the back, replace a sandlot with equipment in place since the school's construction in 1978, said Principal Joseph Mesa. Today 410 students attend the east Modesto campus.
One, 9½-year-old Danielle Haubrich, slid down the seatless slide two parallel bars legs wrap around and pronounced the new playground "way better." The old metal slide "used to burn you so bad. It's actually more safe and more people can go on it at the same time," Danielle said.
Lakewood mom Denise Haflich said three generations of her family played on the old equipment. Watching one of her three kids at the school, Haflich said the worst for her was the sand. "It got into everything. We went through shoes every two months. Cats, fleas we had it all," Haflich said, admiring the fresh wood shavings underfoot in the remade play area.
The playground cost $65,000, raised over years of selling cookie dough and gift wrap, community dinners and other fund-raisers, Brasil said. About $15,000 of that came from contributions to Kristen Machado's memory.
"She was a very playful person. It's a very appropriate way to let her laughter live on," Gregerson said.