What beats a summer day spent trading secrets hidden away in your own treehouse? For years, children have treasured their treehouse hideaways. All too often, however, children with disabilities miss out on this signature childhood experience. Not for long, however, if Bill Allen and his partners at Forever Young Treehouses have their way.
Since 2001, Allen and his organization have built seventeen universally accessible treehouses. These aren’t ordinary treehouses. Forever Young Treehouses feature long ramps with places to rest that allow anyone—young, old, short, tall, or using a wheelchair—to climb high among the branches and birds. These treehouses are unique to each community, designed to integrate with mature trees, and provide safe enduring fun for camps and parks.
The idea began with a treehouse for grownups. In 1998, Allen’s friend Phil Trabulsy, a hand surgeon, was recovering from a long illness. Building a backyard treehouse provided the ticket back to health; together Allen and Trabulsky worked with their hands, communed with nature, and rediscovered their childhood love of treehouses. When their 250-square-foot-structure was complete, however, an elderly neighbor who had closely observed its construction complained she couldn’t climb up the ladder to get inside. Allen realized then, “Pretty much everyone wants to get in a treehouse.
With renewed appreciation for the power of treehouses, Allen and Trabulsy considered the many children who never experienced treehouses because they too could not climb ladders or ropes. As board members of Make a Wish Foundation, both Allen and Trabulsy work closely with children with disabilities. They realized universally accessible treehouses could provide a “typical” childhood experience and a place where all children could play together. Allen and Trabulsy discussed their vision with instructors at a local design school, and the nonprofit organization Forever Young Treehouses, Inc. was launched in 1999.
Why are treehouses so delightful? Treehouses provide a place to hide from other children, from grownups…to be away from the world for just a spell. In a treehouse, one is eye-level with birds and immersed in nature. According to 14-year-old Maddie Fiderius of Cleveland, treehouses “really are kind of magical.” Bill Allen concurs: “Who could not be happy in a treehouse?”
Forever Young intends to build, or start building, a magical treehouse in “every state by ’08.” Forever Young has projects in fifteen states so far. Signature projects include a structure for Paul Newman’s Hole in the Wall Gang Camp, which sought a treehouse where children with cancer could experience ordinary camp activities. This treehouse spreads among 23 trees and occupies 4,800 square feet, including the ramp. Barrington Parks in Illinois envisioned a place for field trips, birthday parties, even weddings. Its 3500-square-foot structure winds through six trees. One of Forever Young’s earliest treehouses, at Camp Ta-Kum-Ta for children with cancer, is a $50,000, 1200-square-foot structure overlooking Lake Champlain. Every community adds a distinct touch, two, or twenty to their project, but each has embraced the idea that no child should be denied the essential childhood experience of climbing into and playing in a treehouse.
Forever Young Treehouses have united communities, bringing people together to design, fundraise, and build. Forever Young visits communities seeking treehouses, to meet potential users and understand how the treehouse will be used. Parks and camps typically engage their entire communities in fundraising, seeking grants, corporate donations, and hosting black tie events, pig roasts, and golf tournaments to raise money. Volunteers from the treehouses’ communities assist in the building process. Says Ben Chater, a college freshman with cerebral palsy who helped erect Camp Ta-Kum-Ta’s treehouse: “I thought it was an amazing project. I wanted to help.”
"The playing field is level in a treehouse," remarks Allen. People of all ages and abilities are reunited with their childhood selves. Allen suggests that “the definition of a successful society is one where people get to do things they never thought they would be able to do. Giving someone a trip to a treehouse is a way to kind of complete childhood.” Inspired to provide everyone access to the transformative power of treehouses, Allen and his team named Forever Young Treehouses from the Bob Dylan song: “Build a ladder to the stars, climb on every rung, may you stay forever young…”
Read more about Forever Young Treehouses by clicking here.