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Camp creates summer memories for kids with special needs


Trail’s Edge Camp gives ventilator dependent kids a chance to swim, ride a horse, climb a tree and to just be a kid

ANN ARBOR, MI – It’s every kid’s summer dream to climb and swing from trees, go fishing, play outdoors, take boat rides, and have slumber parties with friends.

While those dreams may seem impossible for children with disabilities, the University of Michigan’s Trail’s Edge Camp has made them a reality for more than 25 years for children who require a wheelchair, and a respiratory ventilator to breathe. And, most importantly, the camp allows kids with special needs to just be kids for one week every year.

“I just think everyone here is like you. You don’t feel different and everyone has their own problems. You just feel like any other normal kid because you’re all the same and no one looks at you,” says 18-year-old camper Laura Jackson, who suffered a spinal cord injury during a cheerleading accident at age 14.

Laura, along with nearly 30 other campers from across Michigan, spend one week each summer at Trails’ Edge Camp riding horses, sleeping in cabins, swimming, doing archery, and even climbing trees and playing in the camp’s special tree house. Campers range in age from 3 to 21, and more than 100 health professionals – nurses, respiratory therapists, physicians, physical therapists and occupational therapists – volunteer their time at camp each year.

“The whole point of bringing kids here is to give them all the experiences they might not be able to have anywhere else. And we make it as safe and fun as possible,” says Mary Buschell, RRT, a respiratory therapist and camp director for Trail’s Edge Camp.

According to Buschell, more than 2,000 children in the United States require the use of a ventilator to breathe. Some children require ventilators as a result of a spinal cord injury, or neuromuscular diseases or muscular dystrophy.

“The number of ventilator dependent children is certainly growing,” notes Buschell. “It’s become much more common for children with muscular dystrophy and neuromuscular disease to use ventilators to extend their lifespan. In fact, it’s taking these kids into adulthood – and that’s something we didn’t’ think we would ever see 20 years ago.”

Trail’s Edge Camp, too, plays a large role in enhancing the quality of life for these children. Many campers, Buschell says, describe Trail’s Edge Camp as the “best week of their lives.”

Kids who ordinarily might not have the opportunity to sleepover at a friend’s house, have the chance to sleep in cabins filled with their peers and even play pranks on each other at Trail’s Edge Camp.

Campers also can leave their wheelchairs behind to climb a tree and play inside the Craig Van Laanen tree house, named in memory of a former Mott respiratory therapist who never let his cystic fibrosis get in the way of his having fun with kids at camp. The tree house, constructed over two years by a group of nearly 50 volunteers, is the first of its kind in the country designed especially for children who use wheelchairs and ventilators.

“The tree house is unique in that everyone enters it the same way – there are no ramps, stairs or ladders, just ropes,” says Buschell. “But most importantly, how you get inside has nothing to do with your ability or disability. We all enter the same way.”

To reach the tree house, campers are lifted 22 feet off the ground without their wheelchairs using a harness and pulley system. When they reach the tree house, a chair, similar to a ski lift, swings in behind the secured campers, allowing them to move around the entire structure. Portable ventilators the size of a laptop hook on the back of each chair, so there is nothing to hold the kids back from exploring the beautiful woods and wetlands that surround the tree house. In 2005, Trail’s Edge received an award from the Michigan Forestry and Park Association for this innovative tree house.

With medical staff constantly present, Trail’s Edge Camp also gives parents peace of mind that their child’s medical needs are being met.

“Essentially, there are three volunteers for every one camper,” says Buschell. “We have people awake throughout the night in each cabin to provide any necessary medical care.”

The no-cost, week-long camp is held each year at Camp Fowler in Mayville, Michigan, located approximately 30 miles north of Lapeer, Michigan.


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