Doug Armstrong's Labor of Love

Doug Armstrong showing a turtle to a group of kids

Doug Armostrong

A Happy Kid's Dream of Healing

As a child, Doug Armstrong loved going to camp. His parents sent him to Methodist church camps throughout Michigan, including one in his hometown, Albion. Recalling his camp experiences, he says, "I just really value that experience-those friendships, the sense of community, the self-confidence, the self-esteem "

Doug Armstrong did not dream of becoming president. Instead, he dreamed of becoming a doctor, of healing people and bringing the same warmth he felt at camp to others. He's miraculously found a way to do that. He has the full support of the U-M Health Services, and, with steadfastness, careful thought, and all the joy of a happy-kid-turned-happy-man, Doug is building and staffing North Star Reach Camp, a life-changing camp experience for children with serious health challenges. Doug is its CEO.

A Dream Within Reach

When the camp opens in the summer of 2015, North Star Reach will likely be the new home for multiple camps serving C. S. Mott Children's Hospital patients. Currently, these camps-which include Trail's Edge Camp for Ventilator Dependent Children, Special Days Camp for kids with cancer and their siblings, and Camp Michitanki for kids with organ transplants-rent space all over the state to hold annual camping sessions.

To fully understand how Doug went from nursing to camp one must start with his parents.

As a kid, Doug enjoyed working in the lab with his dad, a biochemistry teacher at the Medical School from 1968-1974. "I was always comfortable in the lab, and in science, and had an interest in that." He also recalls doing volunteer emergency care work with his parents in Albion.

At age 13, Doug started as a volunteer at the local hospital in Albion.

At 16, he volunteered as a dispatcher at the local ambulance service, and, at 17, took a course to become an emergency medical technician. By state law, one had to be 18 to be an EMT, but Doug petitioned the state and was licensed at 17.

No Taking "No" For an Answer

His mom, Doug says, calls that being stubborn. He calls it not taking "no" for an answer. Whatever you call it, it has served him, and others, well.

After graduating from Albion College with a chemistry degree, Doug chose to join the international performing group, "Up With People." He was in charge of medical care for the group. "I have been in hospitals all around Europe, all around the U.S. I was also in charge of transportation, driving the large semi truck with all of the equipment all around the U.S. and Europe."

Upon returning, Doug was drawn to U-M's Survival Flight and Transplant program. He opted for the second-degree nursing program at Wayne State University.

"Parents? I think they were a little disappointed that I did not become a physician. They wanted to make sure that I was fully vetting all my options, because I said in about second grade that I wanted to become a doctor and that never wavered, all the way through college."

As Doug so aptly puts it, "Nothing prepared me for this journey, and everything did."

A Clear Passion for Transplant Work

While attending nursing school, Doug worked as a Communications Specialist for the University of Michigan Health System Survival Flight. In 1992, he began working as a perfusionist (transplant donation specialist) for the Transplant Center.

He worked as a nurse in Cardiology, but had a clear passion for the Transplant Center. In 1994, he worked on one of the first studies testing then-experimental anti-rejection medication. This life-saving work culminated in his promotion to Assistant Clinical Research the Transplant Center. "I built a whole team─it went from me doing a single study to me having a staff of 12 or 13 people doing multi-center clinical research."

What drove Doug to create North Star Reach was being part of the transport and transplant team. There, he procured and prepared organs from donors and their families and brought them back for organ recipients.

From Tragedy, Second Chances

"It's always bittersweet," says Doug. "Because from tragedy comes second chances. It's really amazing, to be honestly a part of both sides, because another role that we had within the Transplant Center was to talk to families who were considering organ donation for their loved one. It really gave me an opportunity to talk to them about what good could come from clearly a very traumatic and tragic situation-having that conversation with families, helping them salvage something positive out of a really negative experience.

It was his own joy-filled camp experiences as a kid and spending afternoons with his father, combined with his experiences after, that led to his greatest achievement: North Star Reach Camp, a camp for children, ages 7-15, with chronic and life-threatening health challenges. "I left [the Transplant Center] only to pursue the opportunity -the dream-to build North Star Reach."

In 1998 Doug began taking young organ transplant recipients to camp, one week every summer. Doug and other health care professionals, along with truckloads of hospital equipment, rented a camp about four hours away. Despite its strengths, the rented camp still had large areas of sand and other obstacles that made it difficult to move wheelchairs. The location was also tough because it was so far from a fully equipped medical facility.

Thinking Bigger about How to Build a Camp for Kids

Doug knew that U-M owned an unused camp property in Pinckney called Fresh Air Camp. However, in the 1990s, the university was considering selling it. "Someone was wanting to put condominiums on this beautiful site in between two lakes," recalled Doug. "I just said, 'Wow, what's wrong with this picture?'

"I said, 'They are not going to walk away from a real estate deal for one week of transplant camp, noble as it is. So how do I think bigger?'"

Dr. Robert Kelch, then-executive vice president for medical affairs, had his own warm feelings for U-M's former Fresh Air Camp. Doug smiles and recalls the moment as "dumb luck."

In 1966 and 1967, when Kelch was a resident at U-M, he spent a week each summer out at the then fully operational camp as the camp doctor.

I Had No Idea

"His kids fished in the lake. His brother spent some time there. So he has very fond memories of the property," says Doug. Kelch had not been to the property since-until Doug took him again in 2006. "I got him out there, walked him around and said, 'Here's what we should do, and this could be this,' and he just started to talk about, 'Oh, I remember that the staff would line up for the health center every morning because they were tired and wanted the day off.' I said, 'You were here?!' I mean, I had no idea!"

The camp has been part of the university since 1922. Kelch and Armstrong thought selling it would be wrong.

"[ Bob Kelch] took three million dollars, in effect bought the camp from the main campus, and sort of handed it to me and said, 'We are going to create a new position, and you are going to get this thing up and running, create a kind of board of an independent nonprofit. Work within the university system to get resources and expertise from within the university, and make this happen.'"

That was 2007.

A Vision Taking Shape

In late 2007, Armstrong incorporated a new 501(c)(3) organization. North Star Reach Camp became a non-profit organization located on 105 acres in Pinckney, Michigan.

In early 2008 the North Star Reach Board of to form and, in 2010-2011, the whole camp vision began to take shape: Doug became its CEO, U-M agreed to lease the land to North Star Reach long-term for one dollar a year, and Doug began to hire staff.

In April 2012, North Star Reach became a Provisional Member of SeriousFun Children's Network, founded by Paul Newman. As such, it promises to serve children with chronic and life-threatening challenges free of charge.

Doug calls it a "labor of love."

"What I like to explain, and kind of put into perspective, is why camp's important," says Doug. "Medical advancements have really made it possible to cure these kids, and save their lives. Kids that we take to camp today, 25 years ago probably would not have survived. The technology has come a long way.

"We have done a good job of curing kids and saving their lives. What has lagged behind these medical advancements is the ability to heal these kids. Camp really provides that bridge, that confidence-a future. There is something beyond the next medical appointment, the next procedure. It gives them a sense that they are not alone. They come to camp and find 120 other kids who have been down that same path."

A New and Beautiful Circle

The Armstrong family has created a new and beautiful circle. Doug and his wife, a nurse practitioner in the U-M Cancer Center, live in Scio Township, and have a 7-year old son who looks forward to camp in the summer.

Doug's parents, both retired, volunteer with their son and his family at North Star Reach. "My father mows the lawn," says Armstrong, lovingly. "My parents organized work parties," says Doug. "They have been very active as donors, as volunteers, and they are just really excited about this project."

Reaching for Possibilities

Why the name North Star?

"I really wanted something aspirational, a reach–reaching beyond limitations–for possibilities, for the future.

Doug and the North Star Reach team are in the middle of their $26.2 million capital campaign, to cover construction costs (about $18 million to build the camp) and two years of operating costs once camp is built.

Construction is scheduled to begin in 2014 and camp operations are scheduled to begin in 2015.

The North Star Camp plan includes a health center, dining hall, cabins to house campers and staff, arts and crafts center, nature trails, athletic court, sports field, an accessible tree house with zip line, archery range, amphitheater, and waterfront docks.

"The plan is to keep the camp open all year long," explains Doug, "for a wide variety of groups-kids with serious diseases like cancer, heart disease, severe burn injuries, sickle cell anemia, organ transplants, ventilator dependence and other health issues. We will be able to accommodate more than 1,500 children from the Great Lakes Region's children's hospitals and health systems, all year long.

"I am still a nurse. And a firefighter and a paramedic, and a fire chief at Scio Township fire department, just for fun." His entire family-now three generations-have been along on this journey with him, and are all looking forward to opportunities to come and play with the kids.