Feature Article - September 2007
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Special Accommodations

Meeting Special Needs with Shelters, Shade and Other Park Structures

By Stacy St. Clair

In Cincinnati, the city also found success with a treehouse. Officials began working on the project a few years ago at the urging of a local TV reporter. The initiative was overseen by the parks department, but it required the entire community's help. The local Rotary Club, for example, led the ambitious fundraising campaign. The city also secured in-kind donations from The Home Depot, the Cincinnati Bengals and Cort Furniture. A local builder offered carpenters to work on the project at no charge.

The result is a 1,500-square-foot treehouse that has captured the city's imagination. The project cost $500,000, required more than 4,000 volunteer hours and was worth all the blood, sweat and tears, officials say.

"We were thrilled," Checco said. "We knew it was a great project. It was wonderful to see the dream realized."

The structure, which is connected to 12 trees in the lush Mt. Airy forest, is made of black locust, sugar maple, black maple, ipe and cedar shakes. As the only public treehouse in the tri-state area, its fantastical design encourages imaginative play and invites visitors of all ages.

Its series of ramps provide access to all, including children with special needs who are routinely confronted with barriers to fun and play in their daily lives. Because of its accessibility, the shelter has become a popular spot for programming aimed at disabled or chronically ill children.

"In Cincinnati, we like our parks to serve as everyone's back yard," Checco said. "But quite often we're missing the people who really can't enjoy their own back yards as much as they would like."

And that group includes more than just disabled park patrons. The treehouse and its ADA-approved ramps are very popular with senior citizens as well, who once thought their tree-climbing days over. Parents also prefer the treehouse over the playground because the structure gives them a greater opportunity to interact with their children and engage in their imaginative play.

The structure also has become a popular programming spot since its November 2006 opening. School groups and day camps often rent the facility for classes. Other parks have used the treehouses for yoga classes, poetry workshops and music lessons.

While the Mt. Airy treehouse has captured the entire community's fancy, Checco truly understood its power after a group of terminally ill children spent an afternoon inside writing in their journals. A young girl who suffered from spina bifida and had spent her entire life in a wheelchair wrote an incredible story about the treehouse. She saw it as more than just a wooden structure. The 7-year-old believed it to be a dragon, which could soar her high over the 1,470-acre forest and bring her to heights she'd never known.

"We were completely moved by it," Checco said. "The experience meant so much to her. The treehouse provides a very interesting sense of freedom."

It's moments like those that Checco recalls when asked if the project was worth the expense and effort. He knows other park districts might reject such an endeavor because of the expense and effort involved, but he encourages other recreation managers to shoot for the stars—or at least the treetops.

"It's expensive, but it's also a good community-building experience," he said. "I'm not saying it was easy. I'm saying it's worth it. If we stop ourselves from doing things because they're hard, we'll never do anything exceptional."