Bella Robinson, 3, is proud of her pink kitchen inside a new playhouse recently built in her Bartonville backyard. Her 6-year-old brother Liam, acting as tour guide, shows visitors the old-fashioned dial telephone sitting atop a table, a nearby bench for guests and the artwork on the wall, especially the one featuring his name in big, bold white letters.
Conley, 13, chortles as the lure on his fishing rod gets caught on a corner of the playhouse as he pretends to fish from the porch.
The scene is like many family backyards with playhouses where siblings gather for an afternoon of fun.
However, this playhouse was built by Habitat for Humanity of Denton County volunteers who tailored it specifically for the Robinson family’s needs.
The 8-foot by 8-foot house with a 2-foot porch looks larger than most playhouses because it is. With a pitched roof, a 6-foot adult can almost stand upright. And while there is a door on the front, it is rarely used. A second door on the side built with a ramp is the one everyone usually uses because it’s the one Conley uses as he motors his wheelchair up the ramp.
Born with cerebral palsy among other medical conditions, Conley has spent his childhood in wheelchairs, though it hasn’t limited him in the least. The teen also competes on horseback and is active in other outdoor pursuits. Unlike some families where parents are pleading for their children to go outside, Trish and Carl Robinson sometimes have a hard time getting Conley and the others to come indoors.
“He loves it out here,” Trish says as a crowd of Habitat for Humanity volunteers look at the playhouse for the first time since they finished it two weeks ago. “They all do.”
Carl Robinson already has affixed a battery-powered light to the playhouse porch as the siblings linger after dark in a place they’ve claimed as their own.
For Conley, the playhouse has become a haven to spend more time outdoors playing with his siblings.
“Conley is the rock of our family,” his mother said, adding that everyone enjoys seeing him laugh and smile as he, once again, casts the line out for the big one.
The Robinson family won a bid for the playhouse at Fiesta Flower Mound. The playhouse, donated by Habitat for Humanity of Denton County, was part of the Flower Mound chamber’s annual fundraiser.
Volunteers like Art Locke, who serves on the board, and Jerry Morgan, who brings a wealth of knowledge about building to the organization, found themselves involved in a project that has come to mean a lot more than they ever expected.
Morgan, realizing the need to think outside of the box to make sure the playhouse was wheelchair accessible, had already begun drawing up designs before the actual work began. Using an online drawing of a “Wendy’s House,” he sketched specifics on graph paper and began cutting the pieces to create a sort of kit the volunteers could put together onsite.
“I went from a photo of Wendy’s house to something that would work for Conley,” he said.
Morgan’s ability to adapt on the fly occurred when the team realized the initial double-door front would not work because it would not be tall enough for Conley’s wheelchair. That’s when they designed the side door, which opens at the apex of the pitched roof.
About six volunteers arrived for the three-day onsite building phase where the exterior was erected the first day, the interior finished on the second and painting commenced on the third.
“We hit some of the pretty days,” he said of the team’s three-day project just before sleet, ice and snow moved in to blanket North Texas. “It was a beautiful day when we painted it.”
For Trish and Carl, the playhouse became an opportunity to also teach their children about Habitat for Humanity of Denton County and how the organization builds homes for those who might not otherwise have one and want to pursue the American dream of home ownership.
“What I saw was the bigger picture for what our kids could grasp at this age,” Trish said, “to understand what Habitat for Humanity is all about.”
They didn’t tell their children about the playhouse until the volunteers showed up on Feb. 3. As the trio watched the playhouse take shape, they learned about the program and what it means.
Liam caught on right away. In fact, he’s still wondering when the new family is moving in to the playhouse in his backyard and whether they’ll have kids.
For Conley, it has meant more hours of playtime with his younger siblings. And soon, maybe a bit more time “pretend” fishing.
His parents already are starting to think about how they can create a waterless pond, of sorts, near the playhouse.
It’s evident the trio is proud of their playhouse, welcoming visitors but only if they hurry up and leave them time to play.
“This gave them their place to hang out,” Trish said. “It’s going to be something that brings a lasting experience to our kids.”
Pictured above: Standing next to newly-finished Bartonville playhouse include (from left) Liam Robinson, Conley Robinson, Trish Robinson holding Bella Robinson in addition to volunteer Jerry Morgan, Executive Director Sandra Monclova and Art Locke, board member, from Habitat for Humanity of Denton County. (Photo by Bill Castleman)