Gianna D'Aria swings

Gianna D'Aria with 4-year-old and 22-month-old at the swing set on July 17 the family donated to Heritage Park, Cranbury, in honor of Giuliana D'Aria, the older sister who died a few weeks shy of her birthday in June 2016. 

CRANBURY – Community members gathered at Heritage Park on July 17 to celebrate playground items the D’Aria family donated and to recognize the date as Giuliana D’Aria Day.

“I’m just really excited and happy. It’s finally here,” Gianna D’Aria, Giuliana’s mother, said. “It took a long time, but it’s here and I’m just so happy that the community came out to support us.”

Giuliana Grace D’Aria died June 22, 2016, just weeks shy of her third birthday on July 6. Shortly after being born, she was diagnosed with Leigh syndrome, a rare and severe neurodegenerative disease with no known cure or treatment.

Related: After tragedy, July 17 being named in honor of Cranbury family's daughter to help keep her memory alive

“I just wanted to thank everyone foremost for making this a reality,” Gianna said at the Wednesday morning ceremony attended by approximately 20 people. “When Giuliana passed away, we thought of what could we do to kind of remember her and I wanted it to be something that normally we as a family could enjoy but especially other kids could enjoy.”

Giuliana D'Aria

Giuliana D'Aria was diagnosed with Leigh syndrome, a rare disease that appears soon after birth. 

The D’Arias, with support from friends and family, donated a three-swing swing set, which included a seat for children with disabilities, a musical instrument, and a park bench.

“I thought a swing set and the musical instrument in the park work perfect for her because she loves to swing and music,” Gianna said. “She got a lot of joy [from them].”

Near the swing set is a plaque surrounded by flowers and a tree, which was installed this week, honoring Giuliana.

The plaque inscription reads, in part: “beloved daughter, sister, and granddaughter who brought joy to everyone she met. May she live on in the laughter and smiles of the children who play in this park. … Dedicated in 2019.”

Mayor James Taylor, who has a personal connection to Gianna that dates back public school days, said he hopes the plaque will serve as a lasting reminder to current and future residents about who was Giuliana.

Giuliaan D'Aria plaque

The plaque in memory of Giuliana D'Aria at Heritage Park in Cranbury on July 17. 

“Ideally, we wouldn’t be here to do this, but we are and [to] be able to turn a tragedy into a positive like they have, I give them a ton of credit,” Taylor said. “When somebody is going through something like Gianna and her family, we’re here for them and when I look at the plaque it gives dialogue to the children in the community. … People will remember her and that’s what this is about.”

Though the ceremony happened Wednesday, most of the donated items were installed at least a year ago. Wednesday’s ceremony was the culmination of the effort to honor Giuliana, but also to provide additional activities for children playing at Heritage Park, and showed the local community spirit.

“I wasn’t expecting people that don’t know me. So to see police officers here and other people from the community that I don’t know very well makes it even more special,” said Gianna, “because it means that she’s touching other people’s lives that she didn’t meet. … She’s still having an impact even though she’s not here.”

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Correspondent

Christopher Lang is a freelance correspondent for MonroeNow. Previously he was part of The Record-USA Today Network and served as an editor for a decade at NJMG.