Tree Heaven

Climbing a tree should be a kid’s right, not a privilege. But for children with special needs, it’s usually a dream that can’t happen. “The lift on the school bus is sometimes the highest summit thatcan be achieved,” says Dennis Furlong, pediatrician and Arbor Quest volunteer.

Arbor Quest is now making that dream a reality. The Ann Arbor-based non-profit group believes that everyone can and should be able to see the world with a bird’s eye view, and have helped more than 4,000 kids reach that goal over the past eight years. “We have the harnesses and other specialized equipment that allow us to work across the spectrum of special needs, from mild concerns to kids in wheelchairs and on ventilators,” says Becky McVey, Recreational Therapist in charge of Coordinating Enrichment Programming for U of M. The experience is not limited to particular physical conditions; family and friends can absolutely join in the adventure.

McVey finds the experience continually thrilling. “One little girl kept saying, ‘Girls with CP [cerebral palsy] can’t climb trees’ over and over. Her climbing buddy would reply, every time, ‘Yes, they can! Yes, they can!’ I watched them reach three feet, then nine feet.” For many kids, the most amazing moment occurs when they look down and see their chair on the ground far below them. “It’s a moment that so many kids never thought was possible,” she says. “To feel the wind on your skin and in your hair, to see the world from that perspective, to have that feeling that there are no limits — it’s incredible.”

Parents often report that they’re amazed at how peaceful and relaxed their children are during and after the experience. In fact, many kids can’t wait to come back. Outings occur approximately three times a year: twice in spring and once in the fall. All tree climbing staff are certified tree climbing facilitators, and are adept at making sure climbers feel safe and secure before they begin their ascent.

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