From the January 2016 issue of The Rotarian
Peter Sarratori couldn’t sleep. He had treehouses on his mind. After watching a television documentary about Paul Newman that featured the late actor-entrepreneur’s Hole in the Wall Gang Camp for children with cancer and other serious illnesses, he spent an entire night in August 2012 thinking about the camp’s 30-foot-high hideaway amid the branches. Sarratori pondered the thought of 2,500 children with special needs served by his Rotary club experiencing the feeling of being “up in the trees.”
For two decades, Sarratori has been deeply involved in a camp owned and operated by the Rotary Club of Rochester, N.Y. The 157-acre Sunshine Campus has served children with disabilities for 93 years. In partnership with 17 other Rotary clubs in District 7120 (New York) and seven other agencies, the camp is a place where kids get to be kids, free of charge. With no disability too formidable, it’s staffed by nurses who deal with all kinds of medical requirements. Facilities specially adapted for swimming, miniature golf, boating, and fishing complement amenities du jour like a zip line and a splash pad with tipping buckets and gushing fountains that drench and thrill children in wheelchairs on the hottest days. A sensory building for children with autism highlights the Sunshine Campus’ desire to keep current. The camp lives up to its motto: “Where kids have no barriers to fun.”
But a house, a fort up in the trees? The next day Sarratori spoke with the club’s executive director, Tracey Dreisbach, who fully supported the idea. “When I was a child, I’d spend hours up in a tree fort and those were some of the best days of my life,” says Sarratori. “I wanted to give our kids a ‘best day of their life’ experience up in the trees.”
An Internet search brought him to the Treehouse Guys, a two-man, Vermont-based firm that has designed and built dozens of these structures, many of them with ramps for disabled access. Understanding the fundraising challenges for the $250,000 project, the Treehouse Guys signed on, offering to keep costs down in every way possible, including forgoing the comforts of a hotel and staying instead at the camp through the months of construction.
The builders also agreed to use local talent for the architectural drawings, engineering, carpentry, and equipment rentals, and supported the club’s sourcing as many of the materials as possible.
A project of this scope required not only funds, but also the commitment and energy of the entire club. However, Dreisbach says the committee did not go to members first, but instead to the community – to foundations and business leaders. “We got them on board for products and services as well as money, while educating them about Rotary and the camp,” she says.
But it was the club’s dedicated members who turned the mission into a reality by taking matters into their own hands. Wolfgang Pfizenmaier made the first donation, then spent hours preparing the site and working on every aspect of the building. Chuck Wolcott contributed tools and employees, and even built a higher and drier access road. Dozens of other members donated time, talent, and treasure. Sarratori, president of a busy automotive paint supplier, removed bark from trees; coordinated materials, people, and food; cleaned and cooked; repaired and replaced broken tools and equipment; and secured donations. He hunted down a portable sawmill, lent by Rotarian Bob Jones, who proceeded to mill almost every piece of lumber for the project, many from pines felled at the camp.
The Rotarians’ hands-on embrace of the project impressed James “B’fer” Roth, a partner with the Treehouse Guys, who featured the project on their reality TV series on the DIY Network in August. “There was just an incredible outpouring of volunteers,” Roth says. Jones, for example, “thought he would be milling for a few hours, but it ended up being days and days. We did what we could to save Rotary money,” by allowing club members to participate in the construction. Long before the treehouse ribbon-cutting ceremony, “I was completely convinced about what a great organization Rotary is.”
An even bigger payoff was the reaction of the campers when the treehouse opened in late June. “We can create a space where they can wheel up on their own power,” Roth says of the “rustic and funky” structure, which has a wheelchair ramp with four platforms with activities and a “crow’s nest” outlook. “The walls are out of level, the roofs are warped. It has that out-of-kilter look so it looks like a kid did it.”
And with Dr. Seuss’ imagination as the treehouse’s muse, “You see them smiling from ear to ear,” Roth says. “Where there’s been a barrier before, if we can break down those barriers and give them an experience in the woods, it’s soulfully very satisfying.” As for the Rotarians and their wood-hewing skills: “You go into a working scene as building professionals and you get to go out being friends.”
Campers and their parents played an instrumental part in the treehouse project as well. Several parents volunteered at the site, and campers and staff raised money and had their names carved in the treehouse. One family donated $50,000 in memory of a former camper, their son, Howie Cassady.
“It’s tough to keep a dry eye when you see the smiles on the campers,” says Kenneth Nelson, whose son Brendan, who has cerebral palsy, attends the camp. “In Brendan’s words, ‘It’s phenomenal.’ ”
Dreisbach sees the treehouse project as evidence of what the camp means to families and as a way for the club to promote “the camp with the treehouse” along with Rotary International and its long history of service.
Sarratori, now president of the Rotary Club of Rochester, sleeps pretty well these days. Working outdoors during a Rochester winter will do that, but he rests easy, with visions of campers 22 feet in the air coloring his dreams. “Seeing the project finished and turning out so much better than I dreamed is second only to watching our campers enjoy what we have built,” he says.