Feature Article - September 2007
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Special Accommodations

Meeting Special Needs with Shelters, Shade and Other Park Structures

By Stacy St. Clair

Into the Trees

Shelters and other park structures also can be used to create unique programming opportunities. The Cincinnati park system took its venues to new heights—literally—when officials decided to build a treehouse in one of its most cherished parks.

A knock on Parks Superintendent Gerald Checco's door last fall put to rest any doubts he had about whether the idea was a good one. A TV crew from South Korea stood outside on his doorstep on a cold November day, hoping to do a story on the new treehouse in Mt. Airy Forest. The reporter wanted to feature the whimsical structure on a Korean television documentary on "what's good about America."

"I knew at that moment that the treehouse was a success," Checco said. "It's so successful, people on other continents know about it."

Long before the TV crew arrived, however, Checco had a feeling his parks department could do something great with the structure. At the urging of the mayor and a local journalist, he had investigated the treehouse trend, a nationwide movement that puts a twist on the typical park structure.

The initiative is currently being led by Forever Young Treehouses, a nonprofit organization based in Burlington, Vt. The movement started when financial adviser Bill Allen talked Dr. Phil Trabulsy into building a treehouse at his home in Colchester, Vt. During the process, the two of them began thinking about a treehouse camp for kids. As members of the board of the Vermont Make-A-Wish Foundation, Allen and Trabulsy were particularly sensitive to the needs and limitations of sick kids. It occurred to them that treehouse play was probably an activity that most kids with disabilities never experience.

The pair quickly began work on their first universally accessible treehouse. The end result drew raves from engineers, architects and people with disabilities. The reviews were so positive, they pitched their idea to Camp Ta-Kum-Ta, a camp for children with cancer in Colchester.

That treehouse, built in 2001, overlooks the water and covers 600 square feet with a 191-foot wheelchair ramp. The children had such a powerful reaction to the structure, their enthusiasm led to the founding of Forever Young Treehouses, which creates, develops and constructs universally accessible treehouses for people of all ages and abilities. Allen and his colleagues aim to have an accessible treehouse in every state by 2008.

"Our goal," he said, "is to help everyone, regardless of ability, see the world differently, and enjoy the freedom and peace that treehouses can provide."

The movement began in campgrounds and private parks, but it has quickly spread to public recreation areas. Treehouse prices range from $75,000 for smaller structures up to as much as $500,000. Many parks have recouped the costs by offering programs at the treehouse, or by renting it out for wedding ceremonies and birthday parties.

The project certainly appealed to Scranton, Pa., Mayor Chris Doherty when he heard about the structures nearly four years ago. After learning about the treehouse movement while attending a conference, he traveled to Burlington, Vt., to get a firsthand look at Allen's work. Upon returning to Electric City, he informed his staff that the town would build a treehouse. He decided it would be placed in Nay Aug Park, a 140-acre site in the center of town with both formal and wild sections.