TRACY -- The family of murder victim Sandra Cantu will bring back a citywide event for children on March 8, the day Sandra would have celebrated her 12th birthday.

"Tracy Celebrates Children," is now in its third year and has grown significantly since it began in 2011. Sandra's family began the event to honor her memory and give back to the Tracy community that rallied behind them during their darkest hour.

"My family and myself really appreciate everyone coming together and helping out with this," said Maria Chavez, Sandra's mother. "I would like to personally thank everyone for their love, help and support. The best part of this event is watching the kids smile and having fun -- that's priceless."

Sandra Cantu disappeared March 27, 2009. Sandra, then 8, was kidnapped, drugged and killed, stuffed into a suitcase and dumped in an irrigation pond about two miles from her Tracy home. Her body was found April 6, 2009.

The news of her murder shocked the nation and gripped the heart of Tracy, prompting hundreds to turn out to help search for her.

Her neighbor Melissa Huckaby, a 30-year-old mom and Sunday school teacher, was arrested for the crime and later pleaded guilty to murder and kidnapping.

"This event has helped us (Sandra's family) heal in a way," explained Angie Chavez, Sandra's Aunt. "This is truly a way to honor Sandra and help shed a positive light on things."

"There was overwhelming support to bring this back again this year," said Janet Anderson, Sandra's cousin and the day's organizer. "This event first started out for the family to do something for Sandra on her birthday and not just mourn her.

"We wanted something good to come out of this, thanking the community for all their support during that time. Now this event has grown and taken on a life of it's own. This is for the children in the community and celebrating them."

The third annual Tracy Celebrates Children event is free to Tracy children ages 12 and under and offers a full day of fun-filled activities from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.

The event will include safety-minded activities such as child fingerprinting and ID's, car seat inspections and car seat giveaways, and a martial arts demo.

Among the free activities, children can also enjoy bowling, gymnastics, kid's yoga, story time, face-painting, nail painting and free ice cream and frozen yogurt. All children must be accompanied by an adult.

"This event is a great way to honor Sandra's memory," said Joyce Shepherd, event planner for Tracy Celebrates Children.

"Janet, Sandra's cousin, has been a long time friend of mine, and came to me when she had her original idea to host this event. I was immediately on board to help get the word out. I was really touched by the community's response to all the events that surrounded Sandra years ago. This event has become very dear to my heart,"' said Shepherd.

Here are some of the planned activities. For the full list, visit www.tracycelebrateschildren.com.

9-10:30 a.m.: House Classics Gymnastics open house, 3602 Mars Way.

11-11:30 a.m.: Free nail painting at LaFleurs Nail & Spa, 1924 W. Grant Line Road.

1-3 p.m.: Free ice cream and magic at Baskin-Robbins, 965 S. Tracy Blvd.

3-5 p.m.: Free bowling with live D.J., West Valley Family Bowling Center, 2365 East St. One free game of bowling and shoe rental for kids 12 and under.

5-6:30 p.m.: Padded Sword Sparring at Warrior Ways Martial Arts Studio, 1985 N. Tracy Blvd.

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