Former UM star Long, wife put hearts into fundraiser

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

Jackie and Jake Long are enjoying life with their first child, 10-month-old Juliette, whose wardrobe would make most Michigan fans jealous.

Any maize-and-blue apparel sold in infant sizes, she owns.

"It really is life-changing," said Long, the former All-American offensive lineman and No. 1 overall pick in the 2008 NFL draft. "She's the coolest little baby, always smiling and laughing. She's learning how to crawl and is good at it and is moving all over the house."

What Juliette hasn't changed is how devoted her parents are to fundraising for the North Star Reach camp in Pinckney, which gives children with life-threatening and chronic illnesses a chance to spend a week, all-expenses-paid, at camp. Construction continues, and the camp is expected to host its first kids next May.

The Longs are hosting the second annual fundraiser Saturday at Zingerman's Cornman Farms in Dexter. Last year, they raised $500,000.

"It was more than we could have expected, and it will be bigger and better than last year," Long said. "The people we talk to are so excited to donate."

Since the lease was finalized in 2011, the transformation of the former University of Michigan-owned camp began with North Star CEO Doug Armstrong at the helm. Armstrong, who has worked at Michigan as part of the transport/transplant team, is passionate about giving these children a chance to experience the type of independence camp can provide, while also having top-notch medical technology and personnel on hand.

The camp will welcome children — a total of 130-150 a week — from the Great Lakes states, and is associated with 14 hospitals. A week for each camper is an estimated $2,500, which will be fully paid for by the money the Longs raise.

"They've really been cheated out of their childhood," Armstrong said. "At camp repeatable and predictable, the kids are taking notes the first day asking each other, 'Have you taken this pill? Have you had this procedure? Have you had this hospital food? By Day 2, the conversation is, 'Do you want to go ride a horse? Do you want to go fishing?' They're focused on kid things.

"The camp in general instills self-confidence, self-esteem and the opportunity to try new things. It becomes a transformational week for these kids. They come back more self-assured, better able to advocate for themselves and take some leadership."

While Armstrong is the visionary, the Longs have made it a priority to raise money and make this camp a reality.

"It's a really an incredible feeling," Jackie Long said. "It's a rite of passage for a kid to spend some time away from home, at a day camp or a sleep-away camp. The independence, especially for these kids so dependent on machines and medical care, is the most important thing the camp can give."

Jake Long became a fixture at Mott Children's Hospital during his football days, and Jackie also became active.

"I fell in love with it," Long said of visiting Mott. "These kids just light up, and you talk and laugh with them. It's amazing. It's powerful and it motivates these kids."

Making hospital visits, however, never was enough.

"Both of us were raised with wonderful parents and we knew growing up we were lucky to have our health and the health of our family members," Jackie said. "Both of our families instilled in us the power of giving back. It's not something you just give a gift and step away and live your life. It's a passion of ours to give. Giving back should be a part of our lives, and we want to foster that for our children and make it part of their lives."

Michigan football will always be a part of Long's life, and he said he likes the direction it is going under new coach Jim Harbaugh.

"I'm excited," Long said. "I think Coach Harbaugh is an amazing coach, especially being in the NFC West the last couple years playing his 49er teams, the passion you'd see on the sideline and how hard their players played for him.

"I'm excited he's going to bring that to Michigan football. He's a Michigan man. It's awesome his heart is there, and I'm excited to see him on the sideline. When I was younger, he was an icon in Michigan football, one of best to play (quarterback). He will bring that passion, tradition and that spark we need."