Despite a stiff, cold wind Wednesday, Annie's Playground in Fallston was filled with parents and children enjoying a sunny afternoon on the first day of spring.
The young visitors enjoyed a picnic lunch, soared on some of the many swings and made their way through areas featuring castle turrets, a massive wooden elephant and a forest.
The playground, which opened in 2005 in Edgeley Grove Park, is the product of an outpouring of love and support by the community to the family of 6-year-old Annie Cumpston, who died 10 years ago this Saturday, on March 23, 2003, after being struck by a hit-and-run driver in downtown Baltimore.
The park and playground are managed by the Harford County Department of Parks and Recreation. Paul Magness, the department's chief of capital planning and development, reviewed records of the number of people who reserve the pavilion at the playground and determined "close to" 20,000 people use the pavilion alone each year, making it among the heaviest-used county recreation facilities.
The 280-acre park, which was originally part of Edgeley Grove Farm, is also home to playing fields used by local recreation council teams, a section of Harford County's Ma & Pa Heritage Trail, a working farm and picnic areas. Magness said Annie's Playground "continues as a focal point."
"There's no question in our mind that literally, tens of thousands of people use that park on a yearly basis," Magness said.
Triumph over tragedy
The Harford County community rallied around the Cumpston family in the wake of Annie's death.
"It ended up becoming so massive; everybody just wanted to do something," Annie's father, Tom Cumpston of Jarrettsville, said of what became a two-year effort to raise money and then design and build the playground. "The community just could not do enough."
Cumpston, 50, spoke to The Aegis Wednesday afternoon at the playground. He said many local school children participated in the design process. Tributes to many other Harford County children who passed away are scattered throughout in the 60,000-square-foot playground, in the form of playground equipment or bricks bearing memorials to the children. A memorial grove dedicated to other children was built next to the playground.
"There's so many children that died too soon that are represented in there," Sharon Perfetti, a longtime Cumpston family friend who coordinated the fundraising and construction projects, said.
Perfetti served as director of Annie McGann Cumpston Playground Foundation Inc., a 501(c)(3) created to raise funds for the playground project, and worked with foundation officers Kelly Haggerty, Anne Askey, Sallie Otenasek and Lucy Lutche, "among many other friends and family that were a major part of putting this together," Tom Cumpston said.
Perfetti said the initial plan involved installing a memorial bench in Annie's name at St. Margaret School in Bel Air, where the girl attended kindergarten. The project became a playground as more and more people expressed their desire to contribute.
She said half a million dollars was raised, and "well over" 1,000 volunteers helped out during the two weeks spent building the playground.
"I just can't thank her enough for all the time and effort that she put forward to make this happen," Cumpston said of Perfetti.
He added: "There's so much time and energy that so many people have done, but she really did head it up and work it through."
Perfetti's children are close in age to the Cumpston children, and the families regularly spent time together.
Annie was the second oldest of four girls – the oldest, Susie, is now 17, Alice is 14 and Madelyn is 11.Cumpston is a vice president and branch manager at First Home Mortgage in Bel Air, and his wife, Megan, is a homemaker.
Annie's 16th birthday would have been Jan. 7, according to a plaque at the playground entrance.
The plaque, which bears Annie's face, and a tribute to her are mounted on a large boulder near the public bathrooms.
"To all that visit here: live, love, and laugh during your lives and never take for granted the time we have together," the end of the tribute reads.
Hit and run victim
Annie, who was called "Momma Annie" by other family members because of the care she showed to her younger sisters and other youngsters, died at Johns Hopkins Hospital, hours after she was hit while crossing the street with her parents and sisters.
They were crossing at Lombard Street and Hopkins Place after leaving a performance by the Ringling Bros. Circus at 1st Mariner Arena.
A pickup truck driven by Guillermo Diaz-Lopez of Halethorpe came through the intersection and struck Annie. Diaz-Lopez, who was later determined to be driving intoxicated, fled the scene despite efforts of bystanders to stop him.
Police picked up Diaz-Lopez a short time later and arrested him.
"It kills me enough, that my wife and I had to experience it, but for her sisters to experience that as well . . . ," Cumpston said, recalling the tragedy.
Diaz-Lopez pleaded guilty in October 2003 in Baltimore Circuit Court to vehicular manslaughter and leaving the scene of an accident, The Baltimore Sun reported at the time.
Diaz-Lopez, a native of Mexico who was in the United States illegally, expressed his sorrow to the Cumpstons in court.
"I want to tell the family that from my heart I am very sorry. ... From my humble, poor heart, I beg your forgiveness," The Sun quoted him as saying through an interpreter.
Diaz-Lopez, now 33, was sentenced to 10 years in prison, but he was eligible for early release.
Danielle Lueking, communications manger with the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, said he was released from the Maryland Correctional Institution at Jessup in May 2008, on "mandatory supervision."
Lueking said mandatory supervision is granted to an inmate after building up a certain number of credits for good behavior, being involved in prison programs or having a job while incarcerated.
The inmate is typically supervised by the Division of Parole and Probation, but in Diaz Lopez's case, he was turned over to federal immigration officials.
'How is that Justice?'
Speaking on Wednesday, Cumpston expressed no forgiveness for Diaz-Lopez.
"His only penance is five years, how is that justice?" he asked. "I don't understand."
Cumpston and his family remain focused on the present and the future, however, and ensuring the community remembers a little girl known as "Momma Annie" for her desire to care for younger children.
"As young as she was, she just took care of them," her father said. "She just had the kindest heart."
Scholarship funds have been established in Annie's name at St. Margaret and the John Carroll School in Bel Air.
Cumpston also supports the Ryan Foundation of Baltimore, which raises money to help children with leukemia and their families. He is a member of the Gunpowder Golf Association, which raises thousands of dollars for the foundation each year.
Cumpston always has Annie with him, through a tiny gold angel pin he wears on his collar so "she's always on my shoulder," and a ring which holds a ponytail holder Annie was wearing the day of the accident.
He took the ponytail holder from her hair before leaving the hospital and wore it around his finger until the ring was made.
"I just wanted something from her that I could have with me," he said.
Exit Preferred Realty, which has offices in Harford County and elsewhere in the Baltimore area, is sponsoring a children's Easter egg hunt March 30 as a fundraiser for the playground. The egg hunt will be from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.
Cumpston said the playground shows how a community can come together in difficult times.
"I feel blessed, in a sense, that she was that special," he said of Annie.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun