North Star Reach aims to provide summer camp experience for young hospital patients
Doug Armstrong, a nurse at C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital, was stunned to hear some University of Michigan property near Pinckney with a decaying summer camp was likely being sold to condo developers a few years ago.
Every summer, he and other health care professionals have taken young transplant patients — along with truckloads of hospital equipment — to a rented camp about four hours away. The idea was to offer the kids a chance at a real summer camp experience.
But for its strengths, the rented camp still had large areas of sand and other obstacles that made moving wheelchairs around difficult. The location was also tough if a camper had a medical emergency and made for a large time commitment for health professionals who wanted to volunteer.
After Armstrong and others heard about the Pinckney property, a nonprofit organization called North Star Reach was born. The group aims keep the property and renovate it into a place that would accommodate year-round retreats and camps for different patients and families from around the region. View the site plan.
Armstrong said a proposal to create a camp for patients began by having conversations with leaders of other patient camps coordinated though U-M, like those for child cancer patients and survivors.
"They all sort of agreed the facilities they were using were not ideal, and that they all traveled some distance away from Ann Arbor," Armstrong said. Having "state-of-the-art facilities designed for this purpose this close to Ann Arbor would be perfect."
After getting permission to use the land, the organization is now working to construct that specially-designed patient camp facility.
All that’s needed, the group says, is the money to fund it. In August, those behind the effort organized an open house at the camp — previously known as the U-M Fresh Air Camp — to solicit support toward the estimated $25 million worth of changes.
But the economy has changed a lot since the project first began. Whether and when donors will step forward to fund a project like this remains to be seen.
The camp is hidden in a heavily wooded, hilly piece of property that spans more than 100 acres in Livingston County.
Abutting Patterson Lake, it has the familiarity of a typical summer camp. But the cabins and small camp buildings that dotted the landscape for decades were sagging and deteriorating. Trees had fallen and damaged some of the buildings still cluttered with the remnants of biology experiments from U-M science classes that traveled to the property, old mattresses and dÃ©cor.
The camp was founded nearly 90 years ago and was eventually donated to U-M by one of its student clubs.
Many of those buildings, it was determined, would have to be torn down this fall. The bulk of the cabins were made to be rustic and hold small bunk beds - not to accommodate a load of young campers who might need to bring wheelchairs that weigh 300 to 400 pounds, plus extra oxygen tanks, batteries and medical equipment.
“Sometimes we have kids in wheelchairs and the sand is several inches deep,” Armstrong said. “We’re sort of manually moving those kids across the sand and the grass, up the stairs in areas that aren’t typically built to accommodate that.”
The camp had originally been donated to U-M's College of Literature, Science, and the Arts, which hadn't had a use for it in several years, Pat Warner, associate hospital director, said in a statement. The health system had been considering how it might improve camp experiences already when Armstrong stepped forward, Warner said.
Upon hearing about the camp proposal, administrators at the health system convinced the University of Michigan to sell the property to the health system instead at its value of $3 million. After transferring the money, it began to rent the land to the new nonprofit organization for $1 a year, and paid for the camp’s feasibility study and design.
It allows Armstrong to spend time fundraising for the project, which is proposed to eventually feature cabins large enough to comfortably fit full-sized hospital beds, accessible pathways and a medical building with all the equipment needed to care for campers.
Armstrong's job description has changed a lot in recent months. He’s gone from caring directly for patients to trying to cure the ailing property. Most recently, he’s been conducting inventory and trying to save items that could be used for the future camp before demolition begins.
He does everything from fundraising to mowing the lawn.
The significance of camp
Many of the kids who would visit the camp spend much of their lives reminded of their physical limitations.
“Often when (these kids) get told they are ill, they get a whole list of 'can’t dos,'” Armstong said. But at camp, “they can determine how much challenge they are willing to take on in an environment that is emotionally, physically and medically safe and supportive. They can take on some risk and then experience that sense of accomplishment and many of them have lost that and been cheated out of that.”
Mary Buschell knows this well.
She's the founder and director of a program that’s been taking ventilator-dependent kids away for a week of camp since 1986. She's watched many of the kids grow up and gain independence.
The children at her camp are largely unable to move. The camp can have a profound change on what they think they can accomplish after they see, for example — even when they must stay in a wheelchair — they can speed through the trees on a zip line created specially to hold them, she said.
The camp also helps their parents, who are often 24-hour caregivers. Buschell first got the idea for the camp at a support event for parents of ventilator-reliant children.
“One mom stood up and said, ‘If I just had one week where I knew my son was OK and having fun, and I had a week to look forward to, I could handle it,'" Buschell said. “I said, ‘It sounds like what you’re describing is summer camp.'”
Armstrong is also quick to point out the value of the camp for the doctors and nurses who volunteer.
“It really is important for the medical staff to see the kids in a camp environment and out having fun,” Armstrong said. “The way the health care system works is nurses and doctors mostly see these children when they are acutely ill.
"To see them in a camp setting where they’re having fun, running around and shooting their physician with a squirt gun It really energizes and recharges and makes them realize all the work they do during the year gets positive results.”