North Star Reach's New and Improved Summer Camp

. July 27, 2016.

In most ways, North Star Reach is a typical summer camp. Campers can take archery lessons, fly through the forest on a zip-line, or go swimming in the lake.

A classic summer camp experience, save for one important detail: North Star Reach is for kids with serious health conditions, who otherwise wouldn’t have the opportunity to enjoy an overnight camp.

“It’s an authentic summer camp experience. We’re offering the same experiences that kids without medical challenges would have,” said Ami Walsh, Communications Manager for North Star Reach. “What makes it unique is that there is this amazing health center.”

Walsh and the rest of North Star’s staff celebrated their grand opening June 25 and hosted their first batch of campers (a group of 100 transplant recipients) the first week of July. But creating the camp was a process that took two decades.

Campers bunk up for a complete summer camp experience.

20 years in the making

North Star’s CEO is Doug Armstrong, a former nurse at The University of Michigan’s Transplant Center. It was during a trip with a group of transplant patients to an out-of-state summer camp 20 years ago when the idea for North Star first originated. That first trip was such a hit with his patients that Armstrong started looking for a place closer to Ann Arbor, one that could be built from the ground up.

After years renting out YMCA facilities that lacked accessibility and healthcare availability, an opportunity arose when funding dried up to run the U-M Fresh Air Camp for urban youth in Pinckney.

“The camp was no longer running, and these buildings were just abandoned — the roofs were falling in, the windows were broken, and U-M was going to sell the land,” said Walsh. Working with partners in the U-M Health System, and with support from SeriousFun, a charity organization founded by actor Paul Newman, Armstrong was able to rent the former camp for a dollar a year for 30 years.

North Star’s dining hall got a complete makeover.

Comfort, care and fun

After securing the location, the North Star team began renovations in July 2014. The crown jewel of the remodel, and the reason the camp can move forward, is its state-of-the-art medical facility.

“It’s just a beautiful building. It’s got exam rooms. They can dispense a tremendous amount of medication. If a kid needs chemo treatment, they can get it at this health center,” said Walsh. “The medical team, they’re extremely experienced and talented.”

The new medical facility means kids with serious illness are welcome to enjoy an experience they might otherwise have been denied. Campers are identified through hospital partners, and a medical committee determines eligibility. During this inaugural summer, North Star hosts three one-week camps, each accommodating 80-100 campers grouped by medical condition. Their eventual goal is to serve 1,500 children with serious illnesses annually.

And while North Star can support kids with serious conditions, their primary focus is on making sure children have fun.

“We want to make the medical support invisible, or in the background,” said Walsh. “It’s all about the kids coming and letting the illnesses that are part of their daily lives recede, while the camp experiences take center stage. But the support is there if they need it.”

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