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How a Twin Cities community came together to honor life of Eli Hart: "They've forever changed our lives"

Playground honoring life of Eli Hart is almost finished
Playground honoring life of Eli Hart is almost finished 02:14

MOUND, Minn. —  Of the dozens of people working at Surfside Park in Mound Thursday, only a handful knew Eli Hart.

Yet since his death in 2022, they've become his family's support system – and have made it their mission to create a lasting legacy for him.

Hart's murder at the hands of his biological mother Julissa Thaler sent shockwaves through the Mound community when it happened just over two years ago. Not quite two months later, a small group of people got together and got to work. Their hope, to create a foundation in Hart's name. Shortly after, the idea of creating a new playground at Surfside Park was in motion.

Eli Hart  CBS

"I don't know if we knew what we were getting ourselves into in the beginning," said Tiffany Beitler, who would go on to co-create the Eli Hart Foundation. "We just knew we were going to make this happen."

Beitler, along with co-founders Jen Houghton and Ben Colianni, has young kids. The three, strangers before the efforts to support Hart began, are now inextricably linked.

"We are like a family now, we are a family," Houghton said.

"Our kids all play together, we have dinners together, it's special," Beitler said.

Eli's Memorial Playground

The concept of a memorial playground at Surfside seemed a perfect fit. The current play structure was small and outdated. Not to mention, the community had learned Hart loved playgrounds, specifically swinging along the monkey bars.

The challenge, the group would learn, was significant to make their idea into a reality.

First, they would need to raise over $300,000. Then, there was convincing the city council – where not everyone was on board.

The help, however, came quickly – and in droves.

At Mound Westonka High School, a group of students in the school's DECA program took on the project as theirs. Helping with social media, design, and mission, their project took them to DECA's international competition, where they placed first.

"Just being able to drive by every single day to see the progression of this park. It's very emotional," said Olivia Adam. "Seeing the effort, how hard people worked, how much support the community showed, all of that combined into one is the most rewarding part of this experience."

"Doing this project really broadened my horizons as to how strong the community of Mound is," said Gabriella Larsen. "And how much they were willing to donate money, time, their volunteering hours and come together for this cause."

A perfect concept

The Eli Hart Memorial Playground is a blend of the latest advancements in playground accessibility. There are structures designed to suit every type of kid – something done very much intentionally.

"In terms of the emotional impact, this is definitely the most significant project we've ever done," said Andrew Pudwill of Midwest Playscapes, who partnered with the Hart Foundation on the project.

The family-owned business said they'd already heard of Hart's story when the foundation contacted them for a quote. To them, the project is personal.

"I don't even know if I want to call it a project," said Aubrey Pudwill, who oversaw the effort. "It's so special working with them, the community, and the meaning behind this for Eli, it doesn't even feel like a job."

A family, loved

Not a day goes by, Josie Josephson says, where Hart doesn't cross her mind.

Josephson, married to Hart's father Tory, has been the couple's public voice since Hart's murder.

"(There's still) a lot of confusion, a lot of heartache, a lot of pain," she said. "To see two years later, this amazing monumental event happening, there's so much joy and happiness with it, it's a lot of mixed emotions."

Josephson said she couldn't picture a better way to honor Hart than a playground – a place he experienced some of his happiest memories. Now, she says, her hope is for other kids to experience joy at the playground bearing his name.

"There's the sadness that Eli will never be part of this and be able to play on this, but the idea that all of those affected by his tragedy, his classmates, his community, us, our families, all of those people that were effected by that ripple effect, will be able to come here and build joy and happiness and memories, it definitely warms our heart," Josephson said. "When they come here, there's nothing but happiness and joy, and smiles and laughter. That's exciting to think that this tragedy has brought that opportunity to this community, and these children."

Overwhelming, Josephson says, is the level of support her family has continuously gotten from a community they didn't know prior.

"I just can't wrap my head around it. Every single person here has the same goal to get this park built – it's such an honorable memory. It just brings joy. It just brings a lot of joy," she said. "There's been so many people that have surrounded us, and supported us, that community support and love and joy and honor makes all of those hard times easier."

"There's no way to thank people for this kind of act," Josephson said. "Thank you is not enough of a word. They've forever changed our lives."

The Eli Hart Memorial Playground will have a community ribbon cutting during the city's Spirit of the Lakes Festival on July 20.

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