Citizen Special


Playhouse for Abigail
Sheila Brady
Citizen SpecialSaturday, April 23, 2005

CREDIT: Chris Mikula, the Ottawa Citizen
Manon McKinley is a single mom with cancer. She has a dream to build her daughter Abigail a big playhouse with help from friends and hopefully, strangers.

Manon McKinley battles cancer, while friends rally to build her daughter a dream

There’s going to be a whole lot of construction going on in Manon McKinley’s backyard during the May long weekend if her friends and a growing list of strangers have any say.

The emergency nurse and case manager for community care is fighting for her life against a rare form of cancer that was discovered in August 2003 when she thought she was having a kidney stone attack.

Doctors discovered a malignant tumour the size of a baseball lodged behind her left kidney near the adrenal gland.

“Once a nurse, always a nurse,” says the amazingly bubbly 36-year-old Metcalfe resident, who put her medical expertise to the computer keyboard and researched treatment possibilities, travelling to the United States and consulting with cancer doctors.

She decided against chemotherapy and radiation because their success rate was minimal and their side effects debilitating. Life got even more complicated when her marriage faltered in January and the separated mother focused on her four-year-old daughter, Abigail.

“What can I say? She is the centre of my universe,” says McKinley, who has been home for the past year, recovering from the surgery, venturing out to help at St. Catherine’s School where Abigail will start junior kindergarten in September.

All the while, McKinley dreamt about building a playhouse for her daughter. Something like the playhouse she had growing up in Jogues, a village of 300 south of Hearst, Ont.

“I had an eight- by eight-foot playhouse. It was more like a storage shed with two windows and a little counter inside with a plastic sink. I spent thousands of hours in there and washed a lot of dishes.”

She commandeered her mother’s plastic margarine tubs and glass jars that once held pickles. Her father, Rene Bastarache, built the playhouse and she developed an entire menu and served meals with her girlfriends.

Manon McKinley tempted ants with pickle juice (they liked it), made doll clothes with friends and spent hours in the backyard getaway until she was a 15-year-old teenager.

Now, she wants to build the same magic for her daughter and her army of friends is pitching in to make it happen.

Earlier this month, McKinley sent an e-mail to friends, asking for used wood and other materials so she and two friends, Paul Ouimet, a flooring contractor and owner of JP Flooring and his wife, Lynn Gratton, a nursing friend, could cobble together a playhouse for Abigail.

“Manon is wonderful,” says Ouimet. “She’s a very kind person who enjoys life so much.”

The trio was going to build a modestplayhouse, but the dream bloomed.

Co-worker and friend, Edgar Hernandez, cruised the web, came up with 15 playhouse plans and asked McKinley to choose. “Now it is up to us to make it happen,” says the software programmer.

“You look after people when they are living,” says Hernandez, who lost his wife to breast cancer four years ago. “When they are gone, they are gone. This is a chance to help Manon build some memories with her daughter.

“And it’s for Abigail, so she can have wonderful memories of her mom when she is still here and know that her mom had a lot of friends and so she won’t be bitter about the world when she is older,” says Hernandez, who is co-ordinating the construction project which has raised $500 in cash and has a willing workforce of 100 volunteers for the actual build project set for the long weekend in May.

This is a sophisticated organization of friends with eight committees and a plan to raise $20,000 for the charming two-storey playhouse which will feature a wrap-around porch, window boxes, a turret and a second-floor loft.

Friends are waiting for blueprints to arrive from an American company, La Petite Maison (, which donated the plans, but McKinley got an early taste this week when a simplified version arrived by fax.

“When I start thinking about the playhouse, I get butterflies,” says McKinley, who says it will be far grander than her childhood playhouse.

There are plans for a sink in the kitchen, room enough for tea parties and a bed in the loft so Abigail’s dolls can grab an afternoon snooze.

There are already commitments from flooring companies, roof shingles and flagstones for the front walk and gardening supplies and plants.

“It’s amazing how people are coming to help,” says Jane Schoones. More is needed, from a lawyer to make sure all of the legalities are correct, to building materials.

McKinley is trying to keep calm about the project and has volunteered as co-ordinator of the gardening committee.

“I love gardening. It is therapy for me,” says the slightly overwhelmed woman. “On the May weekend, I am going to get a good comfortable chair and tie myself on it. Otherwise, I would be floating too high. I want to stay calm and watch.”

© The Ottawa Citizen 2005