Ailing Child Steals Hinckley Hearts

Boatyard workers volunteered time and skills for a one-of-a-kind project.

PirateBed368

A fish tank built into the bow of the bed is one of several imaginative features Hinckley Yachts employees incorporated into a pirate-themed playroom for Braiden Norton. For more photos of the project, click here.Kitty Martin

My faith in humanity has been restored.

On a recent visit to the carpentry shop at Hinckley Yachts in Portsmouth, Rhode Island, I got to see what my friend, Captain Willy Hampton, had described to me as "a bedroom set in the shape of a pirate ship." Well, that in itself sounded pretty cool, but Willy said I really had to see it to believe it.

And he was right.

Back in March, Hinckley electronics technician Philip Norton asked Hinckley assistant foreman Jon Hollis for some help in knocking down a wall at his house in New Bedford, Massachusetts, because a contractor had said that it would be at least a month before he could get to the project, but Norton didn't have that kind of time: He needed to knock down the wall to expand his son Braiden's adjoining room to make it more of a combination bedroom/playroom. And it needed to be finished by the time Braiden returned from Houston, where he was getting advanced treatment for pilocytic astrocytoma-a form of cancer on his brain stem-one of the worst spots for a tumor.

"This kid broke my heart when I saw him," Hollis said, of 2-1/2-year-old Braiden. "I saw him once shortly after surgery. He came into the shop with his dad and he was smiling and laughing and running around looking at everything. His attitude is incredible. And he loves boats."

Little Braiden certainly is a trooper. He's had five surgeries in just his first two years, which included removing as much of the tumor as was possible without causing harm to vital bodily functions; and implanting first an external, then an internal shunt in his head to relieve pressure and swelling.

It's been nearly a year since Braiden got his cancer diagnosis in May 2007, so most everyone at Hinckley is aware of the family's plight; and Hollis was only too happy to lend a hand when Norton asked for help remodeling Braiden's bedroom.

"I went home that night and I just started drawing," said Hollis, who'd taken a number of drafting and drawing classes in college. "I knew there was a good chance Braiden would be spending a lot of time in that room during treatments, so I wanted to make it really nice."

Hollis got inspired, his sketches became more elaborate and detailed, and soon what began as a simple idea of knocking down a wall for more room turned into an entire bedroom set as fanciful as something out of a fairy-tale book: a fish tank built into the bow of the boat-bed, a wooden cannon that shoots ping-pong balls, a treasure chest, a slide, a rope swing, ladders, a brig, a working nav station, and a porthole from a boat once owned by Humphrey Bogart.

Hollis' enthusiasm for the project was contagious. Shop foreman Roy Lopes was involved with the project from the start, and many of the other shop carpenters, electricians, and painters soon came aboard. "The whole company got involved really," said Hollis, including Hinckley President and CEO James McManus, who drove to Portsmouth from his home in Boston in his spare time to help with painting.

Hinckley donated $3,000 in materials, and colleagues up at the Hinckley yard in Maine created and shipped to Portsmouth a spectacular piece of furniture from one of Hollis' drawings complete with desk, platform, and 18 shelves for stuffed animals, all of which have been filled with donations. One volunteer, who wanted to be identified only as "Aries," saw a segment about Braiden on the local news and immediately called Hinckley and offered his help. "He's been here on and off for three weeks now," said Hollis.

Hollis estimates that the entire project took about a total of 300 hours to complete over a five-week period, a rather impressive feat, considering all labor was done before or after Hinckley's working hours and on weekends.

Though the Nortons were aware that volunteers were building a "pirate bed" for Braiden, they had no idea the extent of the project, as Philip Norton was barred from the carpentry shop during construction. And the bedroom set was a complete surprise for Braiden. "I just wanted to bring some joy into his life," said Hollis.

To find out more about pilocytic astrocytoma and for updates on Braiden's health, visit the family's website (www.braidennorton.com).