Tree House Center gets a new tree house

Local artist donates mural to United Family Services’ children’s advocacy center

by Josh Whitener

Artist Barbara Funderburk points to her favorite tree house in the mural she created for United Family Services’ Tree House Children’s Advocacy Center. Josh Whitener/UCW photo

MONROE – Since it was founded in 2005, United Family Services’ children’s branch has been known as the Tree House Children’s Advocacy Center. And now, thanks to local artist Barbara Funderburk, children can finally see the “tree house” through a new 20 x 8 1/2-foot mural.

The Tree House Center provides a child-friendly atmosphere for victims of child abuse to receive medical examinations, forensic interviews, counseling and crisis intervention and advocacy. The center strives to make all of its rooms as appealing to children as possible, with a medical exam full of stuffed animals, a counseling room that has a sand table and colorful artwork on all the walls.

But until recently, there was no tree house at the Tree House Center.

“Kids who came in here were always asking to see the tree house,” said Pam Caskey, south region director for United Family Services. “They didn’t understand that was just the name of it. But this (mural) gives them a chance to see the tree house.”

Recently, thanks to a twist of fate, Caskey and Funderburk crossed paths several times. Funderburk was responsible for the murals in the children’s sections in all of the Union County libraries. She also has painted a handful of murals for churches and children’s centers. After talking with Funderburk – and having seen her work – Caskey knew she was the right choice for the job.

The mural, done in acrylic paint, features not one, but two different tree houses, each uniquely designed to represent the fundamentals of the Tree House Center. The tree house on the left is a more standard tree house, with a lookout platform at the top. One child is pulling another up onto a lower platform, symbolizing “children helping children.” A tire swing with two children dangles from a branch, symbolizing children at play.

The tree house on the right is a more whimsical design, with a spiral staircase leading to the top and several “mini houses” along the way. The tree house features more iridescent colors to symbolize hope. One girl stands at the top of the tree house, looking out from the window.

“She’s made it to the top,” Funderburk said. “She’s there, she’s safe.”

Funderburk is surprised to hear people’s responses when they tell her which tree house appeals to them the most.

“I thought (the tree house on the left) might relate more to older boys because it’s more realistic, it’s got more ladders and so forth,” she said. “But that’s not necessarily the case. It’s split between the two. It’s really interesting, and I wish I could do some kind of study on why children select the one or the other.”

Between the tree houses is a lake with a large rising moon reflecting off the water. The mural features more children holding hands and helping each other, and two girls, representing multi-ethnicity, sit near the bank of the lake, gazing out across the water.

“I wanted to incorporate lakes, and I wanted to set it also at an evening period, which is a peaceful time of the day,” Funderburk said. “Things have begun to quiet down then.”
In the sky are three hot air balloons, which are the only way to get to the tree houses, according to Funderburk. To the right is a rushing waterfall and several birch trees bearing the red and gold colors of leaves in the fall, both of which Funderburk placed in the mural to accentuate the peaceful atmosphere.

Funderburk began work on the mural at the end of April, working for four weeks on Tuesday, Friday and Saturday mornings. She worked an average of 18 hours per week, putting about 70 hours total into the project.

And it was worth every bit of it, she said.

“To get an opportunity to do something that benefits children who really had no voice in things that happened to them, if they find any courage or solace or comfort in this mural, then, oh, I will sleep so well at night,” Funderburk said.

Caskey and the rest of the staff at United Family Services are grateful for community members like Funderburk who donate their time and talent to the organization.

“We’re very fortunate to have different members in the community to make this a very child and family friendly place where kids want to come, or they don’t want to leave, or they want to come back,” she said.

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