‘She was the light of our lives’: Family, community rename Smyrna field for toddler

Dorothy Axsom, surrounded by relatives, speaks about her great granddaughter Emma Grace Cole during a dedication at Smyrna Clayton Little Lass softball fields Saturday. Emma’s body was found there last year. Delaware State News/Marc Clery

SMYRNA — Dozens gathered at a Smyrna softball field on Saturday to see it officially named in honor of 3-year-old Emma Grace Cole, whose body was found there in September 2019.

Dorothy Axsom traveled more than 700 miles from Bloomington, Indiana to be there Saturday to see people she had never met honor her great granddaugher.

Emma Grace Cole is shown in a family photo.

“I was there when she was born,” she said. “I caught her. My granddaughter cut her cord. We were there for her first breath.”
Ms. Axsom said the dedication provided her with a sense of closure.

“We couldn’t have a burial, so basically this is like a little memorial thing for us,” she said.

The circumstances of Emma’s death remain a mystery. Smyrna Police identified the toddler in October, and her mother and stepfather were taken into police custody in Pennsylvania shortly after. Mother Kristie Haas and stepfather Brandon Haas, both former Smyrna residents, have been charged in Delaware with endangering the welfare of a child and tampering with physical evidence. Police and court records have been sealed to the public.

But while details are limited, the public outpouring of support has been abundant. The Smyrna Clayton Little Lass Softball organization began a temporary memorial in October and led the permanent renaming.

“As of this day, November 21, 2020, our minor league field will forever be known as the Emma Grace Memorial Field,” said Shawn Vascellaro, president of the organization’s governing board.

Emma Grace Cole’s family from Bloomington, Indiana., gather and pray at a memorial with flowers and stuffed animals during a dedication at the Little Lass softball fields in Smyrna on Saturday. Delaware State News/Marc Clery

“We have a plaque in the shape of home plate that will be bronzed with an inscription on it. Unfortunately, it was not brought to us on time, but as soon as we get it, it will be mounted,” he said Saturday.

Then, Mr. Vascellaro read aloud what the plaque would say: “She soars on angel’s wings, flies with butterflies, plays in heaven’s sandbox,” he said. “She’s worlds away but not forgotten.”

Among the roughly 30 in attendance were several of Emma’s relatives from Indiana, where she lived with members of her extended family for two years.

“She was the happiest baby,” said Tanya Stroud, who had guardianship of Emma and raised her in her Bloomington, Indiana, home for almost two years.

Members of Emma Grace Cole’s family from Bloomington, Indiana, gather at the Smyrna Clayton Little Lass memorial with flowers and stuffed animals. Delaware State News/Marc Clery

“She was the light of our lives,” said Ms. Stroud’s husband, Nick. “That little girl made us smile every morning when we woke up.”

Mr. Stroud said he and his wife were Emma’s true parents.

“We weren’t her great-aunt and -uncle,” he said. “We were her mom and dad. She was our baby.”

Mr. Stroud added that baseball and softball, as well as sports in general, are important to the family.

“I played all the way through college” as a first baseman at Vincennes University, he said.

Mr. Stroud recalled throwing balls with Emma and “feeding her cheesecake and her feeding me cheesecake on Thanksgiving.”

Ms. Axsom thanked the governing board of the Smyrna-Clayton Little Lass and the Smyrna community at large.

Emma Grace Cole’s aunt Tanya Stroud, third from left, stands with family members during Saturday’s dedication at the softball field complex in Smyrna. Delaware State News/Marc Clery

“We all appreciate you guys caring as much as you did, because she could have been a Jane Doe,” she said. “We thank the community for pulling together for her and not letting her memory pass.”

The Little Lass board brought Mark Lewis, a pastor from the Woodside United Methodist Church, to speak at the dedication.

“As I look upon the gathering here today, my heart is wonderfully warmed because of the love that you have shown and continue to show for a child that most of you never met,” he said.

The pastor, who grew up in Smyrna, talked about how the death has rattled the community.

Pastor Mark W. Lewis with Woodside United Methodist Church speaks during Saturday’s dedication. Delaware State News/Marc Clery

He said the crime happened in “the little community of Smyrna-Clayton, where not so long ago you could walk down the street and feel safe because you knew everybody.”

“I don’t think those days are gone. Perhaps they’re just waiting to be revitalized,” Mr. Lewis said.

“Maybe, just maybe, little Emma and your love for her will be the catalyst to bring those days back,” he said.

A Smyna Clayton Little Lass Softball board member places flowers before the dedication for Emma Grace Cole. Delaware State News/Marc Clery

“The biggest questions asked are how and why. How could somebody do something like this, especially to a child, and why would a loving God allow it to happen?” Mr. Lewis said.

To the first question, he said “local authorities are working diligently to find those answers and we thank them for the job they have done so far. Eventually our court system will pass judgment against those involved.”

“As to the second question of why, I don’t have a perfect God-given answer,” Mr. Lewis said.