Opinion: The silver lining of a playground in ashes

Summer's Treehouse at Chastain Park

Credit: contributed

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Summer's Treehouse at Chastain Park

Credit: contributed

Perhaps the upside of this awful event is a chance to see how important it is to turn “What’s the matter with people?” into “Can I help?”

This past Saturday afternoon a shooter took the lives of 10 people in a grocery store in Buffalo. Later that night someone intentionally burned down a much-loved treehouse in Atlanta’s Chastain Park neighborhood.

The two events share the same date and the same “What is the matter with people?” reaction on social media. But, the two events differ greatly on the scale of tragedies - if there is such a scale. They also differ in potential outcomes, as I will explain.

Around 10 years ago, old friend Jay Smith (retired president of what was then Cox Newspapers, which operated The Atlanta Journal-Constitution) invited me to help the Chastain Park Conservancy design and build a new playground. As a longtime playground-build instigator and planner, advocate for the child’s right to play and a resident of Chastain Park where my twin stepchildren, Summer and Jordan, had grown up, I jumped at the chance.

From my experience building playgrounds, I knew that the key to success was to talk with the kids and then listen carefully to what they had to say. Our first step was to hold many “Design Days” at the park. The kids drew hilarious pictures of what their faces looked like while they played. They drew their dream playgrounds, full of slides, swings, candy cane jungle gyms, lava pits (there’s always at least one) and treehouses. There are always lots of treehouses.

After a few years, filled with a lot of work by the grown-ups, the new playground opened to reviews of laughter and joy. In this place with lots of different kinds of play, the treehouse designed by Atlanta architects at Houser-Walker Architecture was its magnificent centerpiece. It was a giant tree or a spaceship. It was whatever your imagination made of it. It was wheelchair-accessible. But, most of all, it was loved.

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Cynthia Gentry

Credit: contributed

Cynthia Gentry

Credit: contributed

Combined ShapeCaption
Cynthia Gentry

Credit: contributed

Credit: contributed

I’m not sure if it was official or not, but the treehouse was called “Summer’s Treehouse.” You see, during the time between the kids’ dreams and the build, my stepdaughter Summer lost her battle with cancer at the age of 16. One day a little girl named Isabelle from across the street knocked on our door and handed us a sandwich baggie with $26.13 in it. A strip of masking tape labeled the bag “For Summer’s Treehouse.” Isabelle had made little bracelets and sold them to raise money to donate in memory of her “big sister” friend. It was heartwarming for our broken hearts.

In the years that followed, the treehouse and playground at Chastain Park have brought immense joy to countless children. There is significant evidence that play helps mitigate the effects of trauma of all kinds in children and is not in any way a frivolous waste of children’s time. Far from it, play is essential to children’s healthy development. But to the kids it was just a great time.

That brings me to the situation we are in now and the potential gift this senseless act of destruction could bring. It is important to realize that for every “What is the matter with people?” on my Facebook and Instagram feeds there are two, “Let’s rebuild! I’ll help!” Unlike in Buffalo, we can rebuild what was lost on Saturday. We can build a new treehouse even more magnificent than the one destroyed for some unknown reason. That is the silver lining here. And, after all, in Atlanta we have quite the history of rebuilding after fires.

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Summer's Treehouse being destroyed by fire last week.

Credit: contributed

Summer's Treehouse being destroyed by fire last week.

Credit: contributed

Combined ShapeCaption
Summer's Treehouse being destroyed by fire last week.

Credit: contributed

Credit: contributed

Imagine the example that would be set for the thousands of children who visited Summer’s Treehouse every year, if in the face of total destruction, they see a community come together to build it back. Imagine how these children would later respond to life’s inevitable losses if in their formative years they see resilience in action, and it becomes part of their DNA. The children who are now devastated and confused can be empowered as they help create the vision of a new treehouse even more fun than the last one.

No matter what our age, the past years have been traumatic for most of us politically, physically, socially, emotionally, and spiritually. So, it was heartening to learn that the Chastain Park Conservancy decided in less than 24 hours to rise up from the ashes of this senseless loss and rebuild Summer’s Treehouse. What a great way to show the kids affected by this fire a healthy and powerful way to respond to difficult circumstances. It’s a win – win – win, is it not?

I just got a message from my 11-year-old grandson who knows his Aunt Summer’s treehouse well. He wants to know how to send some money to help rebuild the treehouse.

Perhaps the silver lining of this awful event is a chance to see how important it is to turn “What’s the matter with people?” into “Can I help?” Maybe together we can all change the world a little, by doing what the kids want us to do…rebuild.

Now, it’s up to us to show them it is possible and get it done.

Cynthia Gentry grew up in Atlanta and is the founder of Living Playgrounds, where she designs natural playspaces.