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Janna Carlisle, of Tracy, helps her two children Madeline Carlisle, 4, left, and Robert Carlisle, 2, with a crafts project in front of the 'Head Start' child development program during the annual Tracy Celebrates Children events in Tracy, Calif., on Friday, March 8, 2013. The free crafts area was one of many events held for children in memory of 8-year-old Sandra Cantu who was killed in 2009. The annual event, now in its third year, is held on Sandra's birthday. Her family started this event as a way to honor Sandra's memory and give back to the community that rallied behind them. (Doug Duran/Staff)

TRACY -- Sandra Cantu was supposed to turn 12 on March 8. Instead, the slain girl's family honored her birthday Friday by hosting a citywide celebration for other kids.

Sandra was kidnapped and killed in 2009, just weeks after her eighth birthday.

Tracy Celebrates Children debuted in 2011 as a way for Sandra's family to honor her memory and give back to the community that helped them in their darkest hour.

"I love watching all the little kids smiling and having fun with no cares in the world," said Maria Chavez, Sandra's mother. "This brings happiness and a little bit of peace to me. I know Sandra is here with us and watching over us."

Friday's daylong event provided story times, martial arts demonstrations, nail painting, entertainment by clowns, bowling, frozen yogurt and ice cream -- all free -- and plenty more for children 12 and younger.

"Seeing the kids smile and laugh brings joy to us," said Joe Chavez, Sandra's grandfather. "We want to give a huge thank you to the vendors and the community for participating in this."

Sandra Cantu was drugged, assaulted and killed, then stuffed into a black suitcase and dumped in an irrigation pond about 2 miles from her Tracy home on March 27, 2009. Her body was found more than a week later, after thousands of people helped comb the countryside for her.

Her neighbor Melissa Huckaby, 29, was arrested and convicted of the murder and is serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole.

Sandra's family members showed up at many of the activities throughout the day, wearing shirts with her smiling photo printed on them.

Friday's events kicked off at 9 a.m. with gymnastics and dance classes. Free activities continued throughout the day.

Tracy resident Sareena Gonzales, 25, attended the event with her two young daughters Sofia, 2, and Lia, 3. "This is my first time taking part in the event, and my girls love it. I think it's great that Sandra Cantu's family did this for her birthday. I don't know the family, but I am sorry for their loss, and I'm glad they are honoring her memory."

In the afternoon, children gathered at West Valley Family Bowl Center for free bowling plus a child safety fair held in the parking lot. The safety event included child fingerprinting, car seat inspections and car seat giveaways to families in need. Local nonprofits were also on hand during the fair.

"I think this is cool," said Tracy resident Gavin Sauers, 5, who came straight to the event from Monticello Elementary School, where he attends kindergarten. "I like this free ice cream."

Tracy Celebrates Children has now become a tradition each March. For details, go to www.tracycelebrateschildren.com.

"This is truly a celebratory day, and it's hard to be sad," said Janet Anderson, Sandra's cousin. "The legacy continues through the eyes of the innocent children here today. Seeing them enjoy this puts a smile on my face.

"Everyone is enjoying the day, from the parents to the merchants, the entertainers down to the children. I am humbled by all the participation in our community for this event that honors Sandra and celebrates her life."

Reach correspondent Anne Marie Fuller at annemarietv@juno.com.