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Camp North Star Reach campers lay in hammocks all together
Courtesy Camp North Star Reach An all-accessible treehouse was added recently; the kids are enjoying cocoon hammocks.

Feeling Normals

North Star Reach offers seriously ill kids camp fun.

Stacy Gittleman Contributing Writer

In just three summers since its opening, Camp North Star Reach, on 105 acres in Pinckney, Mich., has given 1,944 children with serious illnesses a weeklong summer camp experience free from barriers. And free of cost.

The camp offers all the aspects of a rustic summer camp experience, now with an expanded waterfront, sports and arts and crafts as well as new additions like two new zero-entry heated swimming pools and an accessible treehouse featured on the DIY Network.

What makes the camp unique are the dozens of medical volunteers — physicians and nurses and other healthcare professionals who staff the camp’s state-of-the-art health center and oversee the care of North Star Reach (NSR) campers.

One of those volunteers is Dr. Jacob Bilhartz, pediatric gastroenterologist at Michigan Medicine in Ann Arbor.

See a video from Camp North Star Reach

“It’s hard to put into words how meaningful it is to see kids who have come back from being really sick, surrounded by their friends at camp and having fun just being kids,” he said. “At the hospital, we focus on fixing the body. But it’s at camp where kids can get back to feeling normal.”

Most campers come from Michigan, but as word is getting out about the camp, they are traveling from across the Great Lakes region, including the Chicago area, to experience all the outdoor adventures and childhood joys of a traditional camp in a medically supportive environment.

According to NSR founder and CEO Doug Armstrong, the camp’s summer residential and family weekend programs are needed more than ever because a growing population of children with serious medical conditions are surviving their illnesses. By the summer of 2021, Armstrong said the camp plans to expand its capacity to welcome 1,600 children and their family members.

“Hospitals are amazing at providing cures,” Armstrong said. “But camp provides a vital place where kids with serious health challenges move from being a ‘sick kid’ to feeling a sense of normalcy. How that happens is as unique as each camper. But it’s nurtured by the friendships they make with other kids facing similar challenges.”

Trevor Sullivan, 17, had a heart transplant in November 2015 and has been attending camp since the summer of 2016. He is a senior at Groves High School in Birmingham and, because of his experiences, wishes to pursue a career as a child life specialist, a hospital position focusing on the emotional well-being of children undergoing extended hospital stays.

“I have three homes: my house, the hospital and at camp,” he said. “Camp for me helped me find a family outside of the hospital. We are all there for similar reasons and some of us have even met in the hospital before. But having this experience really lets us get to know each other for who we really are. It becomes one big community.”

Camp North Star Reach, a nonprofit organization, joined the SeriousFun Children’s Network in November 2016, becoming just the ninth U.S. residential camp to join the network. The free camping experience is possible through the generosity of hundreds of donors, including NSR founders: The Vera and Joseph Dresner Foundation, the Jones Family Foundation, Mott Golf Classic and the Ted & Jane Von Voigtlander Foundation;  also funding from the Stanley L. & Phyllis Berger Family Foundation.

See a video from Camp North Star Reach

Stacy Gittleman

Stacy Gittleman is an award-winning journalist and has been a contributing writer for the Detroit Jewish News for the last five years. Prior to moving to Metro Detroit in 2013, she was a columnist and feature writer for Gannett's Democrat & Chronicle in Rochester, NY. She also manages social media pages for other local non-profit organizations including the Interfaith Leadership Council of Metropolitan Detroit. Contact her with breaking news and feature story ideas that impact Detroit's Jewish community at stacy.gittleman@yahoo.com

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