For many children, the first taste of freedom and independence comes from a tree house in the backyard. Soon, with a little luck, children with physical disabilities may share in that fun.
Plans have been preliminarily approved for a handicapped-accessible tree house in Lee District Park, to be located near the existing carousel and caboose in the park's western end.
Bob Brennan, director of the Fairfax County Park Foundation, said the idea was brought to him by a staff member.
"I called this guy who built these houses and three days later, I'm in Vermont with my legs dangling out the side of one of these tree houses, up in the air," Brennan said.
While not the first handicapped-accessible park feature in Fairfax County, the tree house would be the first of its kind in the region and closer to families in the southern and eastern parts of the county.
Brennan said the tree house would most likely be as successful and as much of a destination as Clemyjontri Park in McLean, which opened last year. The park, built on land donated to the Park Foundation by Adele Lebowitz, was specifically designed to be accessible to all children, regardless of their ability level.
"The whole house will be designed to be accessible," Brennan said.
A SERIES OF 6-foot-wide ramps will take children from the parking lot of the park out to the tree house, which will sit on two trees. The entire project is expected to be 2,500 square feet in size, including both the ramps, three 16-foot by 16-foot platforms along the way and the 600-square-foot tree house deck.
The ramps will feature 36-inch-tall slats to provide security above the ground, but will also be a fund raiser to help finance the tree house.
"People can donate a certain amount of money and have their name engraved onto the wood, just like we did with the carousel horses at Clemy," Brennan said.
Placing the tree house at Lee District Park will create a second destination park for families with special needs children, he explained, because the size of the county and distance to Clemyjontri may make it difficult for some families to drive up to McLean.
"We have the space for it," said Leon Plenty, manager of Lee District Park. "I think it's an ideal fit."
Lee District Park was one of the first RECenters in the county to sign up for an adaptive aquatics program, now sponsored by the Joey Pizzano Memorial Fund.
Paula Pizzano, Joey's mother, said the park has always been a special place for her family, which includes seven other children, two of whom have special needs.
The Joey Pizzano Memorial Fund was created after the drowning death of their son, who had developmental disabilities. The goal of the foundation has been to help enrich the lives of all children, especially those with disabilities, Pizzano said.
It is their hope that the foundation will be able to raise enough money to built a series of water features at Lee District Park, similar to those at Clemyjontri.
"They wouldn't be deep at all, but some of the equipment may get the kids really soaked or it might just splash their feet," she said.
WHILE PLANS for the tree house and possible water features are in the very early stages, Brennan said excitement is already building for the new venture.
"We want to make this a destination," he said. "We're also looking at possibly making renovations to the existing carousel to make that accessible too."
The tree house will feature wide doorways and open spaces for windows, which will make it easier for people in wheelchairs to move around in it, Brennan said.
No timeline has been set for building the tree house or the water feature because final artistic plans and costs have not been determined.
"It's really just a matter of how fast we can raise the money," Brennan said.
One of the early donors for the project is outgoing Supervisor Dana Kauffman (D-Lee).
"My son always wanted me to build a tree house and this idea made him smile," Kauffman said. "Besides, the only thing better than having a politician up a tree is having a happy kid up there."
Before anything gets started, plans will be re-examined by the Park Authority Board, said spokeswoman Judy Pedersen.
"In concept, we're absolutely on board, partly because we had such a tremendous success at Clemy," Pedersen said. "We understand the need for accessible equipment for children. We have some funding issues and the reality is we need money not just to build the tree house but also the infrastructure that will go with it."