By NANCY E. BAUMGARTNER
Special to the Sun-Gazette
HITE PINE - Brianna Fischer, of Cogan House Township, has the kind of "can-do" attitude that makes anything possible.
PHOTOS COURTESY OF NANCY E. BAUMGARTNER
“Smoke” wafts from the chimney of the dream house built by Brianna Fischer and her grandmother, Shirley Vollman Patterson, both of Cogan House Township. Below, they display a quilt that was handmade for a bed in the house.
Overcoming challenges has been part of her life since 1992 when she was born with a rare genetic disorder called Conradi-Hunermann Syndrome. Affecting mostly females, it is characterized by skeletal malformations, skin abnormalities, cataracts and short stature. It is thought to be caused by an inherited gene.
Doctors told her family that Brianna would live no more than a year. But, they could not know that she also had inherited a fierce determination, a sharp mind and a courageous outlook.
Now 21, Brianna has graduated with honors from Liberty High School, where she was voted prom queen in her senior year.
"My family has always encouraged and supported me," she said.
A particularly strong bond exists between Brianna and her maternal grandmother, Shirley Vollman Patterson, also of Cogan House Township. Collectively, the two have endured more than 30 surgeries and spent countless hours in doctors' offices and hospitals.
Shirley faced her own physical challenges years
ago when she was born with a cleft palate. In the 1940s, the medical community knew little about correcting such a condition.
Brianna also shares with her grandmother strong creative abilities that allow them to pool their talents for design, sewing, painting and carpentry. Each year since Brianna was a child, she and Shirley have chosen a special project to work on together during the long winter months.
In October 2005, Brianna, then 13, wanted to build her own "dream house" in miniature form.
"(We) just brainstormed one day and there it was," Shirley said.
Brianna's original vision was to construct a simple, primitive, two-story model of a log cabin. It was to have a living room, kitchen, an upstairs bath and a master bedroom.
With a 36-inch by 18-inch sheet of luan paneling, the two laid the foundation for the project.
Like most dream houses this one soon took on a life of its own. They had no blueprints, or even an idea of the scale of things.
"Brianna has a very vivid imagination. She would come up with these ideas that I thought were impossible, but we'd get it done," Shirley said.
Using a coping saw, dremel, hot glue gun, ruler, scroll saw and combination square, they cut dowels and fitted them to the home's exterior to resemble logs.
"I would apply the hot glue and then Brianna would place the dowels and level each one," Shirley said.
Bamboo coasters were cut and fit to look like window shutters and to create a welcome mat for the front door. Nearly 1,000 small roof "shingles" were applied one by one and a fireplace was fashioned in wood, then spray-painted to look like stone.
The years spent propelling a wheelchair proved an advantage for Brianna as she built the house.
"I was able to work with small details because I have very strong hands and fingers," she said, displaying a tiny, L-shaped cupboard with pull-out drawers they built for the kitchen, a miniature canister set, a child's bed with handmade quilt and fitted sheets, and a plastic vegetable bin to fit the refrigerator.
The basic furniture was purchased from local craft stores that specialized in miniatures, but Shirley and Brianna created most of the decorative and finishing touches themselves. Their attention to detail is evident in the mounted head of a "trophy buck" that hangs on a wall next to the fireplace.
"My grandpa, Gordon Patterson, would sit for hours in the car at craft stores while Grandma and I searched for ideas. He's very patient," Brianna said with a laugh.
It was on one of those idea trips that Brianna saw miniature nursery items. She decided the house needed to have a nursery.
"This required a reconfiguration of the original floor plan," Shirley said. "We moved the bathroom from one end of the house to the other, put in a small child's bedroom and made the original master bedroom into a nursery and play room."
Every family knows that squeezing in a nursery usually means more room is needed. The answer was a 17-inch by 13-inch addition to facilitate a master bedroom and an attic.
The new addition sparked even more creative ideas in Brianna's mind.
"I always thought it would be neat to have a mural on a bedroom wall, so we decided to paint one, and Grandma's house has pull-down stairs to her attic, so I thought my house needed those, too," she said.
The mural came together nicely, resulting in a restful, pastoral summer scene across one wall of the bedroom.
The stair configuration was a little more complex.
"It took about four days to figure out and construct the stairs," Shirley said. "We cut regular-size hinges in two and fastened them halfway up so the stairs would fold in the middle for storage in the attic's floor above the master bedroom.
"Between us, we would try to figure out how to make the ideas Brianna had become real," she added.
Eight years, countless hours and a variety of materials later, the original log cabin has grown into a replica of a full-sized family home.
Thanks to a gift from the Make-A-Wish Foundation, Brianna purchased interior and exterior lights for her house. It is decorated for Christmas each year with Christmas trees, colored lights and glowing Santas.
To portray a real snowfall, the roof is covered with stretch plastic wrap and coated with spray-on snow. At the side of the house is a multi-colored walkway that contains Brianna's unique signature. It was conceived when, at 16, Brianna's left leg was amputated below the knee to better orient her to the wheelchair and create a more comfortable seating position.
The surgery was done at Geisinger Medical Center in Danville. While there, she passed the time doing crafts. Using tiny, multi-colored tiles only 7/16th-inch square, she created the walkway by gluing the tiles directly onto the home's luan base.
Incorporated in the walk are her initials - B.L.F. It lets everyone know this is her special house.
Asked if she could "people" it with a real family, Brianna said they would "definitely have kids and dogs."
"In all her 21 years," said her grandma, "I have never once heard her complain."
Brianna credits her positive attitude to what she learned at Camp Victory in Millville. It is a place where children with handicaps can go to experience activities such as hot air balloon rides, climbing a tree house with a ramp or dressing up as celebrities.
"They taught us that we can do just as much as any other kids do; it just has to be adapted to our physical challenges," Brianna said. "I know that I can do anything as long as I put my mind to it."
Shirley's admiration for her granddaughter's abilities is evident. Pointing to Brianna's house, decorated for the Christmas season, she said, "we started with nothing and we have accomplished this."
The house is an inspiring example of what a little creativity, a lot of mutual devotion and a few big dreams can become in the hands of two determined women.