North Star Reach in Pinckney Rec Area is a Place Like No Other

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The need is great. More than 75,000 children in the Great Lakes Region with severe and life-threatening illnesses could be eligible to attend a medically supported camp like North Star Reach.

By Doug Marrin, STN Reporter

Nestled away in the northern part of Pinckney Rec Area is the 105-wooded acres of North Star Reach, a summer camp that offers kids with severe medical conditions a respite from the challenges they face.

“Time spent here is often transformational for the campers,” says Colleen Triezenberg, North Star Reach Program Director. “The kids remember what it felt like being here, and they take what they have discovered about themselves back into their regular lives.”

Ami Walsh, Communications Director for the camp, echoes Colleen’s sentiment. “North Star Reach is a community that helps the kids facing these conditions be their best self, or at least show them what’s possible.”

Don’t let the rustic appearance fool you. The state-of-the-art medical center at NSR includes a fully supplied dispensary and is staffed 24/7 by medical professionals from leading hospitals. It is capable of managing central lines, providing chemotherapy or dialysis, and so much more. Campers can receive the individualized care they need, all without ever leaving camp.

I had the chance to visit North Star Reach recently and learn more about the unique camp and what it provides kids in challenging medical situations.

The camp’s mission is straightforward: “North Star Reach provides life-changing camp experiences for children with serious health challenges and their families, free of charge.”

North Star Reach was founded by Doug Armstrong, a former nurse and research director at the University of Michigan Transplant Center. Armstrong had been involved with taking young transplant recipients to camp since 1998. In 2005, he learned U-M was planning to sell its empty Fresh Air Camp in Pinckney, and his vision for North Star Reach was born. The property remains under the ownership of the university but is leased to the camp for $1 a year.

North Star Reach is a no-cost, medically-sound camp where thousands of children who would otherwise be too sick to go camping can enjoy the experience of a lifetime.

Ami’s journalistic knack for storytelling and an experience with a close high school friend who died from brain cancer is what brought her to North Star Reach. Before assuming the Communications Director role, Ami conducted storytelling workshops for the campers.

“I use audio storytelling because a lot of kids haven’t been in school and are intimidated by grammar and spelling,” explains Ami.

Ami gives them a recorder, a prompt and turns them loose. She tells the story of one camper at her final summer camp before she became too old for the program.

Campers often make lasting bonds with other kids facing similar challenges, often for the first time.

At that final campfire, the young lady explained what North Star Reach meant for her. “It’s given me confidence,” she told her fellow campers. “I have been going through some very hard times emotionally. I still have a story that I recorded when I was eight years old. I leave it on my phone so that I can hear the person I was at camp.”

At the heart of the camp’s mission is the understanding that children living with chronic and life-threatening medical conditions like heart disease, blood disorders, and epilepsy miss out on formative childhood experiences due to frequent hospital and doctor visits.

In addition to the raw struggle of a severe medical condition, the kids often face the stigma associated with their illness. Socialization with peers can become an uphill battle on top of other struggles. Isolation, low self-esteem, and a diminished sense of hope are often the result.

The activities kids learn to conquer at camp lead to an increase in independence and confidence. Encouraged but not required to try new things, kids gain a sense of control and self-advocacy.

One of the thrills Ami experiences through her work with the campers is watching them develop the confidence to take their stories out from the campfire circle into the public arena.

“I like helping the kids discover that they have a voice,” says Ami. “The confidence I have seen them have out in public after attending camp to me embodies the joy and the impact of the storytelling part of my work here at North Star.”

As with Ami, Colleen, too, was drawn to her work at North Star Reach through personal experience. “My sister had diabetes, celiac disease, and a brain tumor,” she says. “Growing up she had a lot of doctor visits. Getting her well was a priority for my family."

Campers enjoy hanging out and relaxing at the whimsical treehouse.

Colleen comes from a competitive sports background. Upon completing her college education, she looked for recreational enrichment programs in which to become involved. In 2017, she found the perfect place at North Star Reach, combining her life’s experience with a calling to serve others.

Colleen also sees the dramatic effect the camp can have on a youth’s confidence and self-esteem. “I remember one night in particular,” she recalls. “One of our campers, who was very nonverbal and withdrawn, gets up and starts singing this beautiful song for us. It was stunning. We were all standing and applauding. It was very moving.”

The strong peer support kids experience is another strength the camp provides in combating isolation. “Being around other kids and seeing that others are going through the same things is where the real magic happens,” says Ami.

Campfires under the stars are often a solemn time when kids sometimes open up in ways they never would anywhere else.

Colleen remembers a time at the pool when one of the campers who had received a transplant looked at a volunteer and asked, “Where’s your scar?”

The moment impressed Colleen with the power of peer comfort. “Here at North Star Reach, it’s like the normal thing is to have a surgical scar with a story behind it,” she says. “A lot of it is just having someone being present in the moment with them as they tell their story and relive their medical and emotional experiences.”

The camp also hosts “Sibling Week.” This gives the siblings of those with serious medical conditions a chance for a week’s reprieve from the pressures a sick brother or sister can bring.

“At the closing campfire of one sibling week, I remember one of the campers saying that this is the only place that they don’t have to be strong for their parents,” recalls Colleen. “It’s the only time that they’ve been able to tell the story of what they’ve been through.”

(L) Colleen Triezenberg, Camper Experience Manager, and (R) Ami Walsh, Communications Director for North Star Reach. Photo by Doug Marrin

However, the benefits of North Star Reach are a two-way street, as often is the case when serving others. Colleen and Ami maintain that they get back as much as they give and most likely more.

Colleen describes one of the impacts that working with the children has had on her. “I have a great appreciation for the little things in life. When I’m home with my kids in the moment, I know these campers would give anything to have just a normal day at home. The campers have taught me the most precious things are found in the seemingly small moments of life.”

“These kids give you a perspective for yourself that you also try to share with others,” explains Ami. “It is a gift. There are certainly hard days. We get so exhausted, but in the end, it always feels like a gift.”

For more information on North Star Reach, please visit their website at https://www.northstarreach.org/

Photos: Except where otherwise noted, all photos courtesy of North Star Reach

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