June 8, 2014 at 11:06 pm

Former Michigan star Jake Long, wife pave way to help sick children camp

Jake and Jackie Long pledged $1 million for the North Star Reach camp in Pinckney, which will open next year. (Photo courtesy of North Star Reach)

Dexter — Jake Long, since his days as a Michigan offensive lineman, was always a major presence during the team’s weekly visits to Mott Children’s Hospital.

And not because of his immense size.

Now, the former NFL No. 1 overall pick and his wife, Jackie, are at the forefront of helping children with serious health issues have a place to go camping. The two, who met while attending Michigan, carried on the tradition of hospital visits while in Miami when Long played for the Dolphins and now in St. Louis where he plays for the Rams.

“Going and visiting kids is our passion, but being able to give more was our goal,” Jake Long said Saturday evening after he and Jackie hosted the inaugural fundraiser for the North Star Reach camp at Zingerman’s Cornman Farms.

The Longs announced at the function their donation of $1 million to the camp in Pinckney that will open next year and give sick children a week to enjoy the outdoors and camp-related activities. There are 12 hospitals in Michigan and one in Chicago with plans to refer children to the all-expenses-paid camp.

“This was something we wanted to be a part of and help change lives,” Long said.

Doug Armstrong, a nurse and clinical research director at the Michigan Transplant Center, is the CEO of North Star Reach Camp. He has been working toward the creation of this camp for nearly a decade.

Two years ago, the camp became a provisional member of SeriousFun Network, founded by late actor Paul Newman. His daughter, Clea, attended the Longs’ fundraiser and spoke about her father’s vision for camps like this.

Groundbreaking for the North Star camp is July 30 at what was a vacant and decaying camp owned by U-M. Michigan is leasing it to the camp for $1 a year.

Jackie Long, who is expecting the couple’s first child this summer, said she was impressed with Armstrong’s organization and ultimate goal of giving sick children an opportunity enjoy a week of camp without any expense for their families.

“We get approached pretty frequently for things, and not only did this tug on our heartstrings, but we knew this was really going to happen,” Jackie Long said. “We got involved, we were going to see the day that we could send kids to a camp where they could be taken care of free of charge, and it was going to happen, so that was a huge part of wanting to get involved.”

Before the fundraiser, the camp had raised $20 million of the $26-plus million needed for the capital campaign. In addition to the $1 million the Longs pledged Saturday night, a 15-minute live auction raised $156,000, and the Longs matched that total.

The couple hosted a “mini” fundraiser in Florida last year for the camp.

“And here we are over a year later with this incredible event and raising this much money on the inaugural gala for us,” Jackie said, adding they plan to host the event every year. “It’s so incredible.”

Among the celebrity guests Saturday night were Charles Woodson, the former Michigan standout and former Heisman Trophy winner now with the Raiders, NFL players Sam Bradford and James Laurinaitis and former Michigan coach Lloyd Carr and U-M’s all-time leading rusher Mike Hart, now an assistant coach at Western Michigan. Former Tigers manager Jim Leyland was expected to attend but had to cancel for family reasons. Long praised Leyland for his contributions to the camp.

Jake Long has never taken for granted his good fortune.

“To give back to Michigan and be affiliated with something that we love so much, we’re so privileged and honored because of successes in our lives to be in the position we are to give back,” Jake Long said. “It’s just amazing. As much as we can do, we try to do.”

Jackie Long described the feeling of being able to give back as “surreal.”

“It’s a dream come true,” she said. “We’ve had a lot of blessings. The University of Michigan is what brought us together. It holds a very dear place in our hearts, so we love that that’s a part of it. It’s so crazy being 18 and meeting there and thinking about sharing change to get a Big Ten Burrito and now, we’re here doing this event and raising all this money for a cause that’s so important to us. It’s mind-boggling.”

To learn more about the camp, visit www.northstarreach.org or call (734) 680-8744.