COLUMBIA — There were all kinds of animals at Stephens Lake Park on Saturday.
Balloon poodles stuck out from strollers, and faces painted with lions, tigers and puppies emerged from a shaded tent near the Riechmann Indoor Pavilion. But the most popular creatures were the butterflies.
Pink, green, purple and blue wings decorated the 41 trees that make up the new Children's Grove at Stephens Lake Park. Program covers featured a blue butterfly designed by fifth-grader Nevaeh Stoermer. Children at a booth added sequins and pompoms to paper insects before they were pinned to lapels and strapped on wrists.
Mayor Bob McDavid wore one of the bedazzled bugs as he greeted the crowd of about 200 Columbia residents who gathered for the dedication of the Children's Grove.
The grove, made up of crabapple, lilac and magnolia trees, is meant to be a symbol of Columbia's commitment to children's physical, social and mental health.
Georgalu Swoboda of Putting Kids First told the crowd that in 2012, a needs assessment found that three out of five high school students had thought about suicide and that more than 3,000 Boone County children who were in need of mental health services had been turned away. To address this, voters passed a county sales tax to fund children's mental health services.
Putting Kids First collaborated with Anne Deaton, Suzanne McDavid, Columbia Parks and Recreation, and others to create the Children's Grove and create awareness of children's health issues.
"You haven't heard anyone say mental illness around here," Swoboda said during the dedication. "It's mental health. That's what we're after."
After several speeches, the crowd moved to the grove, where children were already playing among the newly planted trees, for the ribbon cutting.
"Columbia is an incredibly compassionate community, and this is one example, again, of how they pull together," Teresa Maledy said. "The acts of kindness and how important our children are, it's a visual concept made real in the park."
The low canopies of the chosen trees will grow to create a safe, child-sized forest for kids to play in, said Deaton, one of the project's planners, in a speech. The grove will eventually include signage promoting conversations about children's health.
Those involved with the project said they hope the Children's Grove will inspire others to plant trees around the city as symbols of acts of kindness and the importance of mental health issues awareness.
Deaton told the Missourian last year that the idea for the Children's Grove was inspired by the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
"It got me thinking about how that tragedy compelled us all to come together as adults to be there for children," Deaton said. "We need to stand up and say we will be there for our children."
The $20,000 project was paid for with donations from local businesses, agencies and individuals, according to previous Missourian reporting. Construction began on the grove in November.
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