Brock Nowiki stands inside his new playhouse.
Four-year-old Brock Nowicki was one of two children to receive a custom-built playhouse through Bryant Management Association’s annual Project Playhouse initiative.
‘The result is breathtaking’: Project Playhouse holds reveal for kids with illnesses
Apr 23, 2024, by Emma Bartlett

When Brock Nowicki saw his superhero-themed playhouse for the first time, the four-year-old hastily propelled himself toward the wooden structure in his Spider-Man sneakers. His eyes glinted with glee and a smile stretched from ear to ear.

“Woah,” he said, stepping into a playhouse filled with superhero toys and books, stuffed animals, a chalkboard, and a climbing wall. Logos for Captain America, the Hulk, and Black Panther lined the back wall. Painted gray and light blue, the exterior featured cityscapes on the side walls while the front displayed a large ‘B’ that mimicked the Avengers’ logo.

Brock, who had been diagnosed with a brain tumor at age three and is now cancer-free with an upcoming scan, was one of two children to receive a custom-built playhouse through Bryant Management Association’s annual Project Playhouse initiative.

“I’m blown away,” said his mom, Melissa Nowicki, looking toward the playhouse where Brock, who had found several superhero masks and capes in the playhouse, had transformed into Batman. “My son loves superheroes, and this is going to be so special to him for such a long time. I can just picture all the memories he and his siblings are going to make.”

Zoe Smith runs toward playhouse.
Four-year-old Zoe Smith runs toward her new playhouse during Project Playhouse's reveal day on April 18.

Humble beginnings

Established in 2015 by former Management Lecturer Christopher Ratcliffe, Project Playhouse began as a service-learning project where Bryant undergrads brainstormed ways to help children with life-threatening illnesses. After its first year, the project evolved into a volunteer-based organization where students in the university’s Management Association came together to surprise children with their dream playhouses.

Acting as project managers for the initiative, undergrads recruit local Massachusetts and Rhode Island-based schools to construct a playhouse for a child in need; this year, Bulldogs worked with Southeastern Regional Vocational Technical High School, South Shore Vocational Technical High School, and Providence Career and Technical Academy. Students then connect with families through wish-granting organizations and learn about the child’s interests, which are then reported to the high schools.

“The result is breathtaking,” said Project Playhouse Coordinator Cassandra Hierl ’26, noting that, this year, Bryant Management Association collaborated with The Tomorrow Fund and A Wish Come True.

Brock Nowicki fills stuffed animal Bulldog.
Brock Nowicki fills his stuffed animal upstairs in the Bello Center. Prior to the playhouse reveal, kids believe they've come to campus to celebrate Tupper's birthday.

Once the playhouses are complete, Management Association members hold an annual reveal day outside the university’s Bello Center. The kids — who believe they’re visiting campus to celebrate the birthday of Tupper, the university’s canine mascot — are brought outside where two lines of high school representatives, wish granting organizations, sponsors, and Bryant students, faculty, and staff wait and clap for the youngsters as they run to their new playhouse. As undergrads navigate their way from start to finish, Management Association co-advisors Robert Massoud and Hannah Ratcliffe ’19 are there to help.

“Seeing these incredible playhouses shows what a community can do when it comes together to help people who need extra support during difficult times,” said Inge-Lise Ameer, Ed.D., vice president of student affairs, dean of students, and chief diversity officer.

Educational impact

Project Playhouse is a story about kids, helping kids, helping kids. As Management Association Vice President Courtney Lutheran ’24 sees it, nothing can beat the little ones’ smiling faces when they see their playhouse for the first time; however, there is a substantial educational impact for undergrads and high schoolers.

Two young girls blow bubbles.
Zoe Smith, right, and her sister, Zia, blow bubbles outside Zoe's new underwater-themed playhouse.

“I've learned a lot about the importance of teamwork and delegation. This is a huge project and there are so many moving parts on the reveal day, so having a strong team is very important,” said Hierl, who noted that her Project Playhouse involvement has fostered a desire to build nonprofits from the ground up. Meanwhile, for Bryant Management Association President Kathryn Conklin ’24, the initiative has helped her develop leadership skills, which she’s translated to the internship world.

On the high school level, seniors Anna Graham and Gabriela De Almeida from South Shore Vocational Technical High School explained how they designed the decals used on the interior of Brock’s playhouse and painted the exterior.

“It was a lot of fun doing the creative side of it,” said De Almeida, whose Spider-Man shirt fit the occasion. “I’m never going to forget Brock’s reaction.”

Moving hearts

Adjacent to Brock’s superhero playhouse, four-year-old Zoe Smith — who was diagnosed with leukemia and is now in remission — was already immersed in her underwater-themed mermaid castle. Complete with a loft bed, LED lights, whiteboard, and toys, the cozy interior was just as exciting as the turquoise and purple exterior decorated with wooden fish, sea turtles, and seaweed.

Vocational Specialist Jarrod Lussier, whose school designed Zoe’s playhouse, explained that the structure features a garden hose hook up; water comes out of the two front window boxes and reaches up to 20 feet — the perfect sprinkler system for a hot summer day.

Bryant Project Playhouse
Project Playhouse Coordinator Cassandra Hierl, left, with Caree Smith, Zoe's mom, and Melissa Nowicki, Brock's mom.

He notes that 90 high schoolers submitted a design for Zoe’s playhouse. Once the winning drawing was selected, Southeastern Regional Vocational Technical High School carpentry, electrical, and plumbing students turned the vision into reality; Lussier constantly had students approach him, asking to help.

“I am completely speechless,” said Caree Smith, Zoe’s mom. “This has exceeded all our expectations. My kids are going to want to live here in the summer. I cannot even believe that we're going home with this. We're super grateful.”

In addition to the two playhouses revealed on April 18, six-year-old Abigail Bram will receive a Candy Land-themed playhouse during a private reveal later this spring.

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