Sonoma County Habitat for Humanity creates, donates playhouses

Santa Rosa fifth-grader Rilee Harte was challenged last month with an enviable task. From all the adorable, handcrafted playhouses available at the Habitat for Humanity ReStore, she had to choose the one she liked best.

There were several contenders, but Rilee ended up selecting one decorated with colorful swirls and elegant shapes found in the ornate artistry of India.

“I just really liked the different kinds of designs,” she said. “I’m probably going to put a lot of art stuff in my playhouse, and maybe a small table.”

Rilee, who likes doing art and gymnastics, is among the children now enjoying their very own playhouses courtesy of Habitat for Humanity of Sonoma County and ReStore, its discount home improvement store.

The nonprofit organization is known for its community projects and its work helping adults build affordable houses and making home repairs, but it isn’t overlooking the childhood fun and imaginative play inspired by pint-sized houses for kids.

Most of the playhouse recipients, including Rilee, lost their homes to October’s firestorms that ravaged North Bay communities. Fires were still burning in Sonoma County when staff at Habitat Sonoma started getting calls from businesses across the Bay Area - and beyond - asking how they could help, what their employees could do to aid those affected by the fires.

More than 80 corporate groups reached out, some making donations and others wanting to provide hands-on help. Habitat Sonoma staff went into action researching how best to respond. Wayne Kleefeld, general manager at the Santa Rosa ReStore, had heard about a successful Habitat for Humanity playhouse program in the East Bay.

By May, he’d introduced the program locally as a way for corporate sponsors not only to make monetary donations, but to give their employees hands-on, team-building opportunities, especially during a lull between planning, permit processing and housing construction for fire survivors.

Businesses can sponsor a playhouse for $2,500 and either send a team of up to 10 employees to assemble and decorate a playhouse or allow another volunteer group to take over the hands-on activities.

Larger groups can make multiple playhouses, with team-building sessions of all sizes held at the Santa Rosa ReStore or at off-site locations. The efforts support Habitat Sonoma’s mission statement “to bring people together to build homes, communities and hope.”

Levi Strauss & Co. of San Francisco completed three playhouses, followed by Medtronic of Santa Rosa, which is sponsoring 20 playhouses.

Medtronic teams have completed 16 playhouses to date, among the many ways it has supported Habitat Sonoma following the deadly fires. Three other companies are scheduled to make 13 additional playhouses over the next two months.

Kleefeld said corporate teams not only appreciate that their efforts are helping children, but they “really, really enjoy the experience.”

Each playhouse has a theme such as garden, dinosaur, outer space, farm, jungle and sea life, with each volunteer group asked to sketch a design and then paint the scenes onto the treated plywood panels that are assembled into playhouses.

Standing 6 feet tall, each playhouse comes festooned with shingled roofs, scalloped trim and arched front doors detailed with peek-a-boo holes.

Walls, roofs, windows and doors are cut in advance, complete with screw holes for attaching hinges. Each playhouse comes painted with a base coat, then teams apply background colors, often a cheerful yellow, pink, blue or green.

“It’s for kids, so it should be colorful,” said Josh Canaday, a Sonoma State University graduate student and ReStore development coordinator working through AmeriCorps.

He has helped out at several team-building events, impressed by both the camaraderie and team efficiency. Some volunteers have little experience with even basic tools like drills, and even less with decorating something for kids, yet they have great enthusiasm for the project, Canaday said.

“It’s amazing how fast they come together,” he said. Volunteer teams take pride knowing they “all did this together.”

The program runs smoothly thanks to key volunteers including Larry Lapsley, who helped launch the program by learning and improving the cutting processes and leads volunteer teams; Michel Degive, who does most of the trim work at his shop; and Steve Verdu, who helps out weekly.

Playhouses are completed in about four hours, providing an immediate sense of satisfaction for participants. They are then donated to qualifying families - often after selfie photographs and social media posts.

“It’s a tangible thing to make a difference in a child’s life,” said Annalisa Price, director of volunteer and community development with Habitat Sonoma. “It’s been a marvelous experience for us with Habitat.”

Price said the program has numerous rewards. Donations go toward Habitat programs, including current and upcoming housing projects for those who lost homes during the fires. Volunteers share in team building with their co-workers, ultimately providing children with the joys of creative play.

“I feel like a playhouse is a gateway to imagination,” said Katie Delzell, whose family lost its home in Santa Rosa’s Coffey Park neighborhood. Her children, 6-year-old Parker, 3-year-old Penny, and Piper, who turns 2 in October, were among those, like Rilee, selected by Medtronic to receive a playhouse.

Sponsors can name recipients or invite Habitat Sonoma to give playhouses to nonprofits working with children, to military or Habitat partner families, or to kids who’ve gone through a traumatic experience.

The Delzell and Harte families are grateful for the opportunity; the Delzells have a friend employed by Medtronic and Rilee’s mom, Vanessa Harte, is a recruiter for the company.

On a recent afternoon, several families were touring the tiny houses, trying to decide which to pick. The task was nearly impossible, with one playhouse as fanciful as the next.

One featured colorful flowers and friendly insects like ladybugs with big smiles and sweet-faced caterpillars; another was an Irish-themed playhouse made by a team from Medtronic, a global healthcare solutions and medical device company with headquarters in Ireland. Kindly leprechauns, a unicorn, a pot of gold, rainbows and four-leaf clovers decorated the Emerald Isle playhouse.

The program has steadily grown in popularity. When applications for playhouses were posted on Facebook, 30 forms were completed within the first hour.

“There’s definitely a need for playhouses, and definitely a need for sponsors,” Canaday said.

Price tries to set up a fun-filled day for volunteers by playing music and serving kid-approved treats like Otter Pops, bubble gum and lemonade. All work materials are provided, with teams needing only manpower and imagination.

“We do the heavy bits for them, and they come and have fun,” Price said.

Kleefeld welcomes sponsors and volunteers to help fill the demand for the diminutive houses that provide a foundation for creative play and imaginative fun.

“When you set aside all the corporate groups and money and donors and all that, it’s that little smile peeking out through the windows,” he said. “We always think of grownups (for Habitat projects), but we can’t forget the kids.”

You can reach Towns correspondent Dianne Reber Hart at

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