North Star Reach summer camp for ill children hopes to welcome campers by 2015
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After meeting North Star Reach CEO Doug Armstrong four years ago, philanthropist Gwen Haggerty-Bearden made it her priority to do what she could to help his camp project get started.
Haggerty-Bearden used her power as president of the Ted and Jane Von Voigtlander Foundation to urge the foundation's board board to to make a $5 million gift to the project. She was moved to help after she met Armstrong at an open house for the camp four years ago and listening to a young girl in a wheelchair speak about her experiences there.
The North Star Reach camp officials say they hope to open a year-round camp, beginning with their first batch of campers in 2015. The camp will cater for children who are seriously-ill or require special needs.
Though, unfamiliar with the idea of a camp of this nature, her father-in-law had been involved in a camp for ventilator-dependent children in Maple City -— the impact such camps have on the children , however, didn't touch her until that moment.
“The kids weren’t focused on their illness," she said. "(They were more like) ‘I’m at camp, I’m going to swim, ride a horse.’ — the counselors were fantastic and everybody is beyond excited to be there."
It will become the ninth U.S. camp in the SeriousFun network of camps started by the late actor Paul Newman 25 years ago and formerly called the Hole in the Wall camps. There are 28 such camps worldwide.
North Star Reach already has 105 hilly acres in Pinckney they lease from the the University of Michigan Health System, who own the land and is leasing it to North Star Reach at a cost of $1 per year.
Buildings left on the site when the Michigan Fresh Air Camp vacated in 1980 are being demolished and North Star Reach is working with architects to design cabins and common buildings to create a state-of-the-art "rustic" facility.
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North Star Reach has set a fundraising goal of $26.2 million in order to build and operate the camp, which will include an advanced medical center, barrier-free cabins and other buildings, an in-ground swimming pool, a zipline, a treehouse, fishing docks, an archery range and horse stables.
The camp will operate with volunteers and paid medical staff year-round, and children will be able to attend the camp for free.
“It’s a powerful experience for these kids to be around other children who are going through what they’re going through. It allows them to put their medical needs in the back seat and focus on being a child for the first time,” said Armstrong.
He has long been involved in Camp Michitanki, a U-M Transplant Center summer camp for children who’ve had organ transplants. That camp will move its operations to North Star Reach when the new camp opens, he said.
Along with nine other hospitals and health systems from around the state, the UMHS will provide medical volunteers and medical staff for the camp. UMHS also is paying for demolition work and contributing money to help with start-up costs. Its total financial commitment is $4 million, said Bob Harris, director of facilities for U-M Hospitals and Health Centers.
In 1923, the Pinckney property, which is on a peninsula between Woodburne and Patterson lakes, was deeded to a U-M student group. It began operating as a Fresh Air camp, and in 1940, the university bought it from the student group and continued leasing it to the camp. In 1980, the camp was shuttered. Four years ago, UMHS bought the property to establish it as North Star Reach camp.
‘’The land is beautiful,” said Harris. “It’s hilly and extremely wooded. It feels like you’re up north.”
He was careful to note that North Star Reach is not a U-M camp. The other health systems have memorandums of agreement — among them, C.S. Mott Children's Hospital, Hurley Hospital, DeVos Children's Hospital and St. John Providence Health System — will provide camper referrals and medical volunteers, and help with planning and outreach programs.
The plan, said Armstrong, is to run nine or 10 week-long camping sessions during the summer, with each catering to a specialized need. For example, one week would be designed for children who use ventilators, another would be for children receiving cancer treatment, another would cater to those who use wheelchairs, and another would be set up for children who require dialysis.
The camp will serve some 1,500 kids between the ages of 7 and 15 each summer from Michigan and beyond. North Star Reach will be open year-round, running weekend camps for families outside the summer months.
Along with paid physicians and nurses, North Star Reach will heavily rely on college-age volunteers. Armstrong envisions students coming out to the camp to teach. Biology students might come out to do a nature program; athletes might volunteer to help with sports programs, and nursing, pharmacy, and other medical students might also want to help.
A groundbreaking for North Star Reach will be held later this year.
Julie Edgar is a freelance writer for AnnArbor.com.