Denfeld News

July 7, 2008
Duluth News Tribune

Blindness couldn’t derail dad's plan to build a playhouse for his children
By Jane Brissett

Jillian, Eli and Gavin Beetcher thought their dad was building something for a friend as he worked in the garage early this spring.

What they didn’t know was that their father, Ken Beetcher, who is blind, was building an outdoor playhouse for them. He designed and built it. His wife, Malissa, helped assemble it and roofed and painted the playhouse.

It wasn’t until Ken and Malissa were setting up the trusses in the yard that Jillian, 7, caught on. “Is that for us?” Ken recalled her asking. And the answer thrilled her.

Now the Beetcher kids’ playhouse is a magnet for the children in their Gary neighborhood, which delights their dad.

The little blue-gray house is close to the color of the house in which the Beetchers live a few yards away. But the houses are not identical. The frames of the plexiglass playhouse windows are olive — a color 4-year-old Eli likes. Jillian chose the interior yellow wall color and helped paint it. Other portions of the interior are purple.

Ken always loved construction and went to Duluth Technical College to study it before he lost his sight. He was born blind with cataracts and glaucoma but had surgery as an infant to restore his sight. He could see until he was 20, when he lost his vision again.

But he doesn’t let blindness stop him from building. He’s made a child-sized picnic tablefor Jillian, a computer table for Malissa and anumber of wishing wells for friends — generally to cover holes from former water wells. He also repairs cars.

He uses power tools, including a table saw and router, unassisted. If he needs help, he asks Malissa or a friend. Ken said he worked on the playhouse without any adaptive tools except a talking tape measure.

He noted jokingly that despite using power tools, he has all 10 fingers — but when nailing the siding on the playhouse, he hit himself with the hammer three times.

The project for the Beetcher children began when Malissa spotted a playhouse at a home improvement store and remembered the fun she had as a child, playing house in a small shed. “It was nothing cute like this,” she said. Malissa decided their kids should have their own little house and suggested it to Ken.

Building a house had been his dream from the time he was a child.

It took him a while to come up with a plan, which was modeled after a friend’s home. Although he couldn’t see the friend’s house, Ken envisioned it by touching. “I feel everything,” he said. And because he once had sight, he is able to see just about anything in his mind.

The one-room playhouse, which is set on patio blocks and nontoxic treated wood, has a 4-foot roof overhang in front, creating a covered area supported by posts. Ken intends eventually to build a child-sized deck there.

A knotty pine door opens to an interior equipped with a toy stove, microwave, refrigerator, dishes and rug. The Beetcher children enjoy opening the windows, which swing outward, to watch what’s happening outside. One window is placed low on the wall so 2-year-old Gavin can see out.

The entire project took 45 to 50 hours and cost about $500, Ken said. Most of the material was bought on sale except for the windows. Those he found at a rummage sale. The Beetchers also saved money by doing the work themselves.

For people who aren’t prepared to design and build playhouses from the ground up, kits are available at prices from less than $50 for indoor play tents to $18,000 or more for fancy houses with doorbells, skylights, lofts, simulated wooden floors, stained glass windows, porches and other features. Many kits are available on the Internet. Home Depot in Duluth can special-order some outdoor playhouse kits.

Knowing that the kids are in and out of the playhouse all day gives Ken plenty of satisfaction. But it also fulfills his aspiration of constructing a house, albeit a small one.

“I got to build my dream,” he said.

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