Seriously ill children get a summer camp of their own

Kyla Smith
The Detroit News

While working as a nurse and clinical director for the University of Michigan Transplant Center, Doug Armstrong came up with an idea to help children escape the realities of dealing with their life-threatening illnesses.

More than 20 years ago, Armstrong and his colleague Vicki Shieck started taking groups of organ transplant recipients to weeklong camps every summer. As the number of children multiplied, more space was needed.

To accommodate the needs of every child, Armstrong founded North Star Reach, a nonprofit that gives the camping experience to children with serious medical conditions.

The 105-acre camp is celebrating its opening from 2-5 p.m. Saturday in Pinckney.

“I wanted to have a camp that kids could attend where they can experience fishing, canoeing, arts, crafts and other outdoor activities that most kids get to enjoy when going away for the summer,” Armstrong said. “They will be able to meet kids like themselves, make new friends and feel safe.”

Children from Michigan and Chicago-area hospitals will spend a week at the camp, which will be equipped with 24-hour care from nurses and physicians.

Ebon Wilkins, a board member and former golf professional who helps oversee fundraising for the camp, said he notices a difference in the youngsters after they leave their first retreat.

“At first, the kids are apprehensive and nervous on the first day because they don’t know what to expect,” Wilkins said. “But then someone will see them with the same scar and they don’t have to explain anything. Slowly, you start to see the progression of confidence building and the kids having the opportunity to just be kids.”

North Star Reach is a part of the SeriousFun Children’s Network, started by Paul Newman in 1988, and will be the ninth SeriousFun camp in the United States.

Over the next two years, the camp will cost $26.2 million to build and operate, and the nonprofit has raised $25 million of that goal. While the weekly cost for each camper is $2,500, the camp is free for all participants.

More than 150 children can be housed at a time at the camp, which has two pools, a group treatment area, dispensary, amphitheater, waterfront docks and zip line.

For the first session, children who have received organ transplants will attend from July 3-9. Children with congenital heart conditions will attend July 17-23, followed by children with sickle cell and blood disorders July 31-Aug. 6.

While some may see summer camp as just a getaway from everyday challenges, Armstrong said the weeklong retreat helps with child development.

“When kids are rushed in and out of the hospital, they can become dependent and the parents can become overprotective and afraid, but being away overnight helps with a child’s independence,” he said. “The parents are sometimes surprised at how much the child can handle on their own.”

Throughout the year, North Star Reach will offer weekend retreats for campers and their families at no cost.

“Our focus is to give the kids an outlet where they can forget about the hospitals and the tests,” Armstrong said. We want the kids to have some kind of normalcy, while making lifelong memories and having experiences like any other child.”

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