‘Zahra’s Whirled’ sculpture is new centerpiece of popular playground in Hickory

The 2-year-old Zahra Baker All Children’s Playground, named for a young girl killed and dismembered in 2010, has become one of the most popular facilities in Hickory’s 23-park system.

Improvements at the playground at the Kiwanis Park include a $224,724 restroom/picnic shelter project that will be completed by early May, officials say. And final design work has been wrapped up on a wheelchair-accessible treehouse.

A new metal kinetic sculpture by Carrboro artist Mike Roig, called “Zahra’s Whirled,” was recently dedicated at the playground in conjunction with April Child Abuse Prevention Month.

Organizers began the effort to build the playground a few months after Zahra Baker’s remains were found in Caldwell County, north of the Hickory home where the 10-year-old disappeared in September 2010.

The freckled-face young girl had survived two bouts of cancer that left her without one leg and with hearing problems.

Her stepmother, Elisa Baker, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in the case. Zahra’s father, Adam, returned to his native Australia in 2012 with his daughter’s remains.

The Kiwanis Clubs of Catawba County and the city of Hickory announced plans for the playground on Valentine’s Day 2011.

Steve Aaron, a member of the Western Catawba Kiwanis Club and chair of the playground fundraising effort, said the original goal was to raise $75,000 but “we wound up with $240,000.”

“Today, it’s the number one destination-park,” Aaron said. “It’s a regional destination. You see school buses there from five or six surrounding counties. This park is very special. We chose to make it fully handicapped accessible.”

The new sculpture is another addition to a playground that has achieved a degree of success Aaron described as “beyond our greatest dreams when we started.”

Hickory Mayor Rudy Wright called the playground “a gathering place for people of all physical abilities.”

“I’m proud of our city and the generosity of the people who made it happen,” he said.

The sculpture named “Zahra’s Whirled” was originally named “Another Whirled” and planned for another Hickory park, according to Roig. But the Hickory Art Commission decided to place it in the Zhara playground, and he changed the name.

The 7-foot-tall sculpture in the center of the playground is made of recycled steel and stainless steel and has six large air-catching wind blades that spin vertically.

For now, the sculpture is in storage until a pedestal can be built to raise the blades high enough so that children can’t reach them, Roig said.

Adrienne Opdyke, family advocate for the Children’s Advocacy and Protection Center of Catawba County, thinks the visual impact of “Zahra’s Whirled” will be significant.

“It’s really beautiful,” she said. “A little breeze sets it in motion and draws your attention. It causes you to turn your head and look.”

Opdyke said she hopes the sculpture and playground will raise awareness about child abuse issues. And she feels the place sends a message of “joy and hope for children and that we will remember them.”