Doug Armstrong Receives Prestigious Award from University of Michigan Council for Disability Concerns

In recognition of his passion and vision for creating accessible, inclusive and cost-free camp experiences for children with serious illnesses, North Star Reach founder and CEO Doug Armstrong has won the prestigious James T. Neubacher Award. Presented annually by The University of Michigan’s Council for Disability Concerns, the award recognizes U-M faculty, staff, students or alumni who demonstrate a commitment to removing barriers to full participation for people with disabilities.

“I am tremendously honored to receive this award and help carry on the work of James Neubacher,” Armstrong said. “We strive every day at North Star Reach to make the world a better place for children who face enormous challenges and deserve the opportunity to just feel like a normal kid. I’m so grateful to the University of Michigan’s Council for Disability Concerns for this recognition, and my hope is that this helps more families learn about us, so we can provide more life-changing camp experiences.”

(Read the U-M “The University Record” article; photos above courtesy Michigan Photographer/Michigan Media, J. Kyle Keener)

In 2007, Armstrong, a nurse, walked away from a career as director of clinical research for the University of Michigan Health System’s Transplant Center in order to pursue his dream of building a year-round, medically-sound camp to support the special needs of pediatric patients.

“A patient’s father told me his son wanted to go to summer camp, but no camp would accept him because he needed medical support,” he said. “I benefited greatly from camp as a kid, and I really felt that children cheated out of their childhood by illness needed this experience.”

The medical specialty camp includes a state-of-the-art health center, dining hall, climate-controlled cabins to house campers and staff, a treehouse, arts and crafts center, two heated swimming pools, nature trails, an archery range, an amphitheater and a waterfront dock, all
designed to fit in a rustic camp environment and entirely accessible.

The traditional camp programs are also intentionally designed to accommodate a diverse range of abilities. Outdoor activities and community-building events aim to help kids who often spend significant time in hospitals and doctors’ offices a chance to reclaim their childhood. Campers embark on learning new skills like archery, canoeing, fishing and swimming, all in a fun, medically sound environment.

Children living with chronic and life-threatening medical conditions like heart disease, blood disorders and epilepsy may face the stigma often associated with their illness, which can make socializing with peers challenging. As a result, they often feel left out and develop low self-esteem and a diminished sense of possibility. At North Star Reach, campers connect with other kids facing similar health challenges and feel a sense of normalcy and belonging, often for the first time in their lives.

“As a lifelong healthcare provider, I believe camp is a ‘healing bridge,’” says Armstrong. “Hospital are amazing at providing cures. But our camp provides a vital place where kids with serious health challenges move from being a ‘sick kid’ to feeling a sense of normalcy. Thanks to an incredible community of donors, foundations, hospital partners, and volunteers, we’ve been fortunate to create a special healing place for deserving kids and their families.”

The award was created in honor of Neubacher, a U-M alumnus who lived with multiple sclerosis and was a columnist for the Detroit Free Press and an advocate for equal rights and opportunities for people with disabilities. In one of his most-well known columns, Neubacher encouraged others to increase awareness of disability-related issues with these eight words: “Raise a little consciousness. Raise a little hell!”

For coverage of the award ceremony, held on Friday, October 25, at the Rackham Graduate School Assembly Hall, check out the curated Twitter story here, created by P. F. Anderson.