By Linda Stalvey
“I think we come hard-wired to spend time in trees,” says Bill Allen, founder of Forever Young Treehouses Inc., a 501(c)3 corporation created in 1998 for the explicit purpose of building universally accessible treehouses in every state by 2008. “I mean, have you ever tried to get a kid out of a tree?”
It isn’t easy. There’s something magical about hanging your legs over the edge, enjoying the view and the gentle breeze as you sway back and forth, back and forth.
This magic is the central component in Allen’s business plan, which has afforded him the opportunity to build treehouses in 13 different states--the first one in his home state of Vermont and the latest in Pennyslvania--and name his company after a Bob Dylan song.
These magical treehouses, which Allen states are ADA-compliant, safe, unique, tree-respectful and budget-conscious, have now moved into the camp world. Here are the stories of two such camps and a park district…
Camp Ta-Kum-Ta--Colchester, Vermont
“Camp Ta-Kum-Ta is a one-week-a-year, jam-packed magical happening,” its Web site states. Talk to Ted Kessler, the camp’s director, for five minutes and you know this is not just hype. From a prom night to daily themes that appear as if by magic in the morning--thanks to late nights by the 100 or so staff members--this camp provides a variety of once-in-a-lifetime events for children ages 7 to 17 who have or have had cancer. When the kids are at Camp Ta-Kum-Ta, they can forget their diagnoses and prognoses, and enjoy life to the fullest.
“We pick the kids up at the hospital and transport them to camp. No child is too sick to come to camp,” Kessler states emphatically.
The camp has a strictly enforced no-communication policy. As you can imagine, that can be a hard decision for the parents of a terminally ill child. “In the 23-year existence of Camp Ta-Kum-Ta, August is the only month we have never had a child pass away,” Kessler explains, which must offer some reassurance to parents. Allen and The Treehouse Foundation approached Kessler about building a treehouse for the camp. After a successful prototype, Allen was ready to start his mission with a project in his home state, and he was familiar with Kessler’s work at Camp Ta-Kum-Ta.
Allen’s foundation raised the funds and donated the treehouse. In 2001 the first campers were up in the trees.
The 600-square-foot treehouse, located 25 feet from the shores of Lake Champlain, feels much higher than its 11 feet in the air because of two 20-foot drop-offs between the treehouse and the shore. The treehouse is accessed by a 191-foot ramp that winds through the cluster of trees that supports it. Ten to 15 kids can sleep in the treehouse, and sometime during the week, most of the 70+ campers elect to spend a night in this magical place, where peace and beauty prevail in a different world.
“The kids love to just sit and listen and look at the water from the treehouse. It’s a special place to be when you’re feeling down or exhausted. The staff loves it too,” says Kessler.
The treehouse is also used for rainy-day programs, picnics and games … the uses are almost unlimited.
Kessler’s only regret is that he did not have a mulching or incinerator toilet installed in the house. Although the bathroom is near, the staff can get tired wheeling the younger children up and down the ramp in the middle of the night.
Natasha Koch is a recently married young woman on the special activities staff at the camp. When she was 4 years old, she was too young to attend the new camp that the other kids in the clinic waiting room were talking about. In her best 4-year-old whine, she complained, “I wanna camp ta come ta.”
Her angst created the name for a place that has brought magic, peace, life experiences and, to some, life itself--Camp Ta-Kum-Ta.
Camp Victory--Millville, Pennsylvania
Unlike Kessler, who received a gift he didn’t know he wanted until he received it, Jamie Huntley, Executive Director of Camp Victory, knew exactly what she wanted for her special needs camp. But her treehouse took three years of funding requests in the newsletter wish list and something of a miracle to bring it to fruition.
Camp Victory opened in 1994 as a volunteer-based, local endeavor to bring the camp experience to special needs children. Twelve cabins, a challenge course, a pond and pools are scattered over 120 acres of wooded and open terrain at Camp Victory. Twenty-two partner groups, each serving a special needs population, such as children with spina bifida, autism, cancer or diabetes among others, conduct the programs. Programs run from mid-May through the end of September, and serve about 1,200 children per season.
The treehouse idea was presented to Huntley by one of her partner group members, who saw an article about Camp Ta-Kum-Ta. Almost immediately, an e-mail was sent to Allen, and he and a group from Camp Victory visited Camp Ta-Kum-Ta. Three years after the decision to build, the group still had not raised the $150,000 needed for materials.
In a twist of fate worthy of a movie script, Huntley received a phone call from Dan Merrill of West Pharmaceutical, who stated his company wanted to build the treehouse for Camp Victory. With three plants in the area, this company that manufactured delivery systems for pharmaceuticals was choosing to “pay it forward.”
The newsletter wish list came to the attention of company officials after a request that donations be made to Camp Victory in memory of the son of a company doctor, who died in an automobile accident.
In addition to donating money, West Pharmaceutical employees donated time to construct the treehouse. Crews of eight people a day in 3-day rotating shifts worked until the house was finished. With an abundance of volunteer help and Forever Young Treehouses staff to supervise and attach the house to the trees, the facility remarkably was completed in less than two months.
The treehouse is 18 feet x 24 feet, with 100 feet of ramp and 25-foot level sections for rest. A ribbon-cutting ceremony this past June celebrated the opening of the camp’s treehouse. To date, 14 groups have brought 800 children to the camp with the vast majority of them opting to spend a night in the treehouse.
“Despite the lack of running water, the kids want to move in,” says Huntley.
“The tragic death of a child has resulted in a magical place that brings much joy to many children with physical challenges,” she concludes.
Mount Airy Forest Park--Cincinnati, Ohio
Gerald Checco, Superintendent of the Cincinnati Park Board, was struggling with ways to bring children in touch--physical touch--with nature. A local journalist discovered Forever Young Treehouses and said, “How about one of these in Cincinnati?” Checco had his answer. He immediately decided to build one.
“We wanted every child to have the opportunity to climb a tree, touch the leaves, and watch them turn color in the fall,” said Checco.
“We reviewed our parks and chose the biggest forest to create a Smurf-like treehouse. We wanted a whimsical place that looked as if creatures from the forest lived there, like Mama and Papa Smurf coming out the front door,” he explains.
As the date for construction drew near, Checco was painfully aware that they had not raised enough money to build the treehouse. The NFL’s Cincinnati Bengals were scheduled to put the finishing touches on the project that looked as if it were not a go. “There was no logical way we were going to be able to build that treehouse,” said Checco. “But I had a knowing that it would be built by angels--it would be done, but I didn’t know how,” he says, thinking back to 2006, “and we went for it!”
After several ups and downs, the angels started to appear. Drees, a local luxury home builder, offered Checco “all the carpenters you need to build the ramp.” The Home Builders Association told him, “We want to build the house for you.” Others offered scaffolding. “People were coming out of the woodwork to help us,” Checco recalls.
Even with all the help, the prospect of hitting the NFL deadline looked dim. “Even Bill Allen was saying it wasn’t going to happen,” says Checco. However, the superintendent never lost the faith.
“Every day I was onsite, and every day we experienced an event that could stop the project cold,” he remembers. “And every time we experienced a miracle. It was amazing. Within a couple of hours the problem would be released, and another angel would appear with what we needed.”
As a result of “angel assistance,” the build was completed in a record-breaking 32 days. In that time, volunteers and staff logged 12,000 hours. Checco chuckles, “We were quick, but it cost us more in emergency purchases … But the money always came in.”
The help didn’t stop with the completion of the treehouse. Many corporations wanted to assist the park. Checco was able to upgrade the trails around the treehouse by adding handrails, steps and platforms.
“We know that disability is not a cookie-cutter situation,” he says. “Although not ADA-accessible due to topography, our trails allow those who want more of a challenge to attempt it.”
Despite the location in a park rather than a more secure camp, Checco says vandalism isn’t a problem. In part, he attributes that to the Park Police Headquarters at Mount Airy Forest. Video cameras were installed, and signs inform visitors that they are being monitored for their safety. Final plans are being completed to install “blue phones,” an emergency phone line direct to police.
Checco says he now draws his type of people into the park, such as families and senior citizens, because of the complex of treehouse, upgraded trails, playground and accessible bathroom just steps from parking.
Yet when one is in the treehouse, it’s like being in another world. Checco sees it as a ”mystical experience--we are here, but not quite here.” He describes it as a sense of freedom--especially when the wind blows the treehouse, “even a bit spooky until you get used to it,” he says.
Checco’s ultimate joy and accomplishment come from the kids. Five-year-old Amanda told him the treehouse is really a dragon, and she flies with it over the forest. (To Amanda, the treehouse roof looks like dragon wings.) Amanda has spina bifida and is surrounded by wheelchair, harness and frame, yet she experiences freedom in the dragon treehouse.
The local children’s hospital held a camp for severely disabled children at the park this summer, and used the treehouse for a creative writing class. Some of the children could only talk through computer, yet successfully wrote poetry and short stories.
To his colleagues, Checco offers these words: “Often, we use too much reason. Reason would have had us shut down this project early when things weren’t lining up. But just trust! The beauty of the project and the good it does will bring people that have answers to your question. You have to trust that, even if the project seems too big for you, engage into doing it, and solutions will come.”
Linda Stalvey is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Parks & Rec Business and Camp Business magazines. She gave up Washington, D.C., public relations to indulge her passion for parks, the environment and outdoor activities in Medina, Ohio. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.