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Orange County

Inmates Build a Sense of Purpose While Creating a Playhouse Entry

About 60 male and female residents of the Musick Branch jail produce a tiny beach house to be auctioned for charity. "It's a motivator," says one.

August 31, 2004|Mai Tran | Times Staff Writer

From the big house comes a dollhouse.

For years, Southern California's top home builders have competed to build the most exotic playhouses in the land -- miniature estates and castles, complete with turrets, that sell for tens of thousands of dollars in the name of charity.

This year, professional architects and engineers have some competition -- a group of Orange County inmates.

"No one wants to be in here," said Chris Herdt, 48, of Newport Beach, who is serving jail time on an alcohol-related conviction. "But when we build together on a big project, it's a motivator. It gets our mind off the negatives, the gangs, our race. We work together and it gives us a purpose."

About 60 male and female inmates from the James A. Musick Branch Jail agreed to pitch in after a supervisor at the minimum-security facility, outside of Irvine, read about the annual auction of the high-priced, well-appointed playhouses.

The result is a lime-green beach house with a purple shingle roof, neatly crafted white cabinets, seat cushions and curtains.

The house is among 15 luxury playhouses that will be auctioned as part of a fundraiser by HomeAid, a nonprofit organization that builds and renovates full-size homes for the homeless. The 13th annual event will be held Oct. 23 at Fashion Island in Newport Beach.

In past years, the playhouses have sold anywhere from $6,000 to $75,000 -- the record bid in 2001 for playhouse known as "Tom Sawyer's River House," by Mulvaney & Co.The inmates spent four months designing and building "The Dolphin House," a 75-square-foot beach-themed playhouse surrounded by palms and banana trees.

There is a surfboard propped against a wall, and 5-foot Dutch doors open to a tiny kitchen table with two teddy bears seated for tea. The kitchen has a bronze faucet, a built-in cabinet and a bench overlooking a beveled glass window. Features include molding, wood floors, sponge-painted walls and a ceiling fan.

The design and the labor were the work of the inmates, and the materials were donated by local companies.

"The spirit of it is what I love -- the whole give-back, the chance for these folks to feel a sense of contribution and production," HomeAid spokeswoman Delene Garbo said of the inmates.

She said the proceeds go toward helping many of estimated 35,000 homeless people in Orange County.

For some, the prospect of helping raise money for those without shelter hit close to home.

"I know how it is not to have a place," said Rodney Carrillo, 29, who said he lived in a Santa Ana motel for months before he was jailed on drug charges. "[The playhouse] was for a good cause, so I thought it was a good idea to be a part of it."

The inmates are among about 1,200 minimum-risk inmates who are serving time for such things as drug or alcohol offenses or domestic violence. The jail provides programs that teach inmates skills, including construction and sewing.

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