It's every kid's summer dream to climb and swing from trees, and to spend their time away from school surrounded by friends and outdoor fun – and 6-year-old Anna is no exception.
For the past two summers, Anna, who suffered a high-level spinal injury in a car accident at age 2, has been coming to Trail's Edge Camp for Ventilator Dependent Children in Mayville, Mich.
No matter what their physical limitations, there are no boundaries or barriers at Trail's Edge Camp for children like Anna. At camp, Anna is free to just be a kid. She can swim, ride a horse, climb a tree and fish – all things once thought to be an impossible feat for kids who use wheelchairs and ventilators.
But nothing is impossible at Trail's Edge, says camp director and University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children's Hospital respiratory therapist Mary Buschell.
“Trail's Edge gives kids the opportunity to be independent,” she says. “For kids who are confined to either a bed or wheelchair, they need a place where they can feel a sense of freedom, enjoy nature, express themselves socially and escape the challenges of their everyday lives. Trail's Edge is the perfect place to show them that they can live in a world without boundaries.”
The no-cost, week-long camp was the first of its kind in the world, and, 16 years after it began, Trail's Edge continues to break down barriers for its campers .
Taking Dreams to New Heights
The dreams of Trail's Edge campers were taken to new heights in 2004 when the camp opened the first tree house in the country designed especially for children who use wheelchairs and ventilators.
The tree house and woodland retreat was named in memory of Craig Van Laanen, a respiratory therapist at U-M C.S. Mott Children's Hospital's who never let his cystic fibrosis get in the way of his having fun with kids at camp.
The tree house, built into the branches of a large red maple tree that campers affectionately named “Reta,” was constructed over two years by a group of nearly 50 volunteers.
To reach the tree house, Anna and other campers are lifted 22 feet off the ground without their wheelchairs using a harness and a 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 laptops 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.
But one of the most poignant moments for Mary and the other volunteers is looking down from the tree house at the empty wheelchairs on the ground, and seeing the freedom the campers are experiencing up in the tree.
Acres of Independence
Like any typical summer camp, Trail's Edge offers its campers the chance to enjoy nature, become more independent, gain self-esteem and, most importantly, make lasting friendships in a very comfortable environment.
But there are also many activities that even “ordinary” children will never dream of experiencing, including hot air balloon and plane rides.
Run by volunteering health care professionals – nurses, respiratory therapists, physicians, physical therapists and occupational therapists – who double as camp counselors, Trail's Edge offers parents and caregivers the piece of mind that their children are having fun in a safe and medically-supervised environment.
“For one week, the world is different for these kids,” says Mary. “Their disabilities are not an issue. They have the opportunity to just be normal kids.”