Dealing with a serious medical condition can be challenging at any age but especially for children and teens.

For Doug Armstrong, the University of Michigan’s 2019 James T. Neubacher Award recipient, providing an outlet for children with serious health challenges and their families is more than a job — it’s a passion.

Armstrong received the award Oct. 25 during the Neubacher Award presentation ceremony.

Armstrong is the founder and chief executive officer of North Star Reach, a nonprofit recreation program and camping site designed to support children ages 7-17 living with chronic and life-threatening medical conditions. It operates year-round and is cost-free to campers and their families.

Photo of Laurita Thomas, former associate vice president for human resources, presenting the 2019 James T. Neubacher Award to North Star Reach CEO Doug Armstrong at a ceremony Oct. 25.
Laurita Thomas, former associate vice president for human resources, presents the 2019 James T. Neubacher Award to North Star Reach CEO Doug Armstrong at a ceremony Oct. 25. (Photo by J. Kyle Keener, Michigan Photography)

Since opening in 2016, the camp has served nearly 2,000 pediatric patients living with epilepsy, congenital heart disorders, cancer, sickle cell anemia and organ transplants.

“I was always a camper as a child and got to go to summer camp,” Armstrong said. “And I really believed that experiences at camp enriched my life and helped develop skills that helped me be successful.”

The North Star Reach facility is located on Patterson Lake near Pinckney, Michigan, and sits on land that Armstrong leases from U-M.

The campsite features cabins for campers and counselors, a health center with exam rooms, group treatment area, observation rooms and a dispensary staffed around the clock by volunteer nurses and physicians. It also has a dining hall that holds up to 450 people, an arts and crafts area, two swimming pools, a tree house with a zip line, waterfront docks, nature trails, an athletic court, a sports field and an amphitheater.

The impetus for North Star Reach grew after Armstrong, a nurse and former clinical research director for the U-M Transplant Center, helped take groups of young organ-transplant recipients to a weeklong camp every summer.

Photo of Doug Armstrong, the 2019 James T. Neubacher Award recipient.
Doug Armstrong, founder and chief executive officer of North Star Reach, is the recipient of the 2019 James T. Neubacher Award. (Photo courtesy of Doug Armstrong)

“When I learned that many of the patients we cared for in the transplant center were unable to attend summer camp because of their medical limitations, it seemed that if anyone needed a camp experience, it was these kids who have been cheated out of their childhood,” he said.

“No child wants to be defined by their disease or medical condition,” Armstrong said. “No matter how intense treatments get or how terrifying things become, a kid still needs to be a kid.”

The award honors Neubacher, a U-M alumnus who was a columnist for the Detroit Free Press and an advocate for equal rights and opportunities for people with disabilities. It is facilitated by U-M’s Council for Disability Concerns and recognizes U-M faculty, staff, students or alumni who demonstrate a commitment to making the campus welcoming and accessible to people of all abilities.

It comes with a stipend provided by the Office of the President and is presented annually in October during Disability Community Month — formerly known as Investing in Ability Week — a series of programs and activities designed to increase awareness and understanding of people who have disabilities and disability-related issues.

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