Contractors, Inmates Join Forces to Build Special Treehouse

Thu March 06, 2008 - Northeast Edition
James A. Merolla



Thanks to a dozen local contractors, several prison inmates, an innovative program and some much needed space, some locally challenged children will be able to climb a tree.

It doesn’t sound like much on the surface, but to those who support children and adults with developmental disabilities, it is a new environment, a natural, nurturing place.

In early January, the Institute for Developmental Disabilities Inc. (IDDI) and the Bristol County Sheriff’s Office held a joint press conference to allow the press to see the construction of the first universally accessible treehouse in Massachusetts.

The treehouse will serve the children and adults that live and learn on IDDI’s 45-acre campus in the Assonet Village of Freetown. These individuals have all been diagnosed with multiple severe to profound mental and physical disabilities.

In a unique collaboration, Charles B. Young, chief executive officer of IDDI, and Bristol County Sheriff Thomas M. Hodgson have agreed to join forces to make this dream a reality. Hodgson has provided, at no cost to IDDI, a staff construction supervisor, a carpenter and an inmate work crew to assist the two company representatives in erecting the treehouse.

Once the treehouse is built, it will become the centerpiece of what will be known as the Treehouse Park at IDDI and will include the “EPA Express” — formerly the antique train that so many remember from its days chugging through the old Lincoln Park Amusement Center in Dartmouth, Mass., and a universally accessible walking path.

IDDI’s mission is to support children and adults with developmental disabilities in a loving, nurturing environment that promotes health, safety, dignity, respect and choice.

This treehouse project —including the ramp that leads to it — means a great deal to the children who never thought they would be able to climb a tree. But that is something IDDI does: it replaces barriers and obstacles with opportunities for achievement.

The Massachusetts contractors, designers and suppliers who are working collaboratively on the project are a varied group — KRR Construction of Assonet, TreeTech of Foxboro, Thermo-Mechanical Systems Inc. of Assonet, Simmons Concrete Pumping Company of New Bedford, Pavao Builders of Fall River, First Quality Metal Products of Plympton, Dartmouth Building Supply Co. of Dartmouth, Weyerhaeuser of Assonet, Compass Group Architects of Assonet, Seekonk Supply Company of Rehoboth and Morse Sand & Gravel Company.

Prison Inmates Help Kids

Perhaps the most unique builders of this treehouse project are the inmate work crew. The Bristol County Sheriff’s Department is providing a group of pre-release inmates to help build the actual house. The 1,500-sq. ft. structure, expected to be finished by May, will overlook Assonet Bay, allowing people in wheelchairs access via a 200- by 6-ft. (61 m by 1.8 m) ramp and deck.

Construction on that started in November across a stretch of IDDI’s 45-acre campus. All told, according to IDDI, some 1,000 volunteers will have touched some aspect of the project.

“The residents who live here are restricted with their mobility, but one thing that we know they do have is a lot of love,” Thomas M. Hodgson said at the January press conference held in bitter cold at the site of the treehouse. “I know how important it is for the inmates who were here over this period of time, and will continue working on the project, to experience doing something good for some very special people.”

It also serves as a rehabilitation project for the inmates. A couple of months into it, the inmates said they have been altered by the experience.

“It’s pretty awesome to know what we’re doing is going to make these kids happy,” said inmate Mark Askren. “When I started, I was doing it for myself because I got to get out of jail. God works in mysterious ways. Now, I do it for the kids, not myself. I see the happiness in their faces and it makes my heart feel good.”

Upon his expected release in April, Askren said he plans to bring his family to (the appropriately named) Freetown to see the finished treehouse.

“Involving inmates in projects such as this one gives them a feeling of achievement and accomplishment and will hopefully get them on the right track,” added Hodgson. “Many inmates in this program become more productive and accomplish great things when they leave prison.”

’Beyond the Horizon’

IDDI provides housing and therapy to 46 children and 69 adults, something it has done for some 50 years. The treehouse — which will span seven trees and will sit 15 ft. above the ground — will provide a therapeutic atmosphere for the physically and mentally disabled residents at IDDI, according to operations director Russell Goyette.

IDDI development director Dennis Farias said the treehouse will cost an estimated $227,500 to build, money that will be paid mostly through donations and grants. By using the inmates as labor, IDDI was able to shave $30,000 to $40,000 off the total estimated cost.

“These people didn’t get to experience the same things you and I did growing up,” said Farias. “The treehouse is a great recreational tool and educational area.”

The rustic treehouse also will also serve as a classroom. It will contain a big window and benches, along with the walkway. As of this writing, two thick tree trunks poke through the center of the floor.

It has been in the planning stages for approximately three years. Susan Bouchard-Young, managing director of IDDI, said it was “wonderful” to see it all come together; to see their pencil drawings off the page and real wood replacing drawn lines.

“For a while it was nothing but stakes in the ground, so it was wonderful to see it coming together,” said Bouchard-Young, who did much of the fundraising. The very idea of the treehouse came from an article she read in People magazine several years ago about a similar treehouse built in Crotched Mountain in Greenfield, N.H.

The treehouse has a life expectancy of 50-plus years.

“This gives an opportunity for the children to not just see the horizon, but to see what’s beyond,” said Robert DiOrio of Sandwich, the grandparent of an IDDI student.

The Institute for Developmental Disabilities Inc. is located at 38 Narrows Road, Assonet.

For more information, visit www.iddicommunity.org. CEG