Trail's Edge Camp: Tree House
It's every kid's summer dream to climb and swing from trees, and to build a special tree house in their backyard where lasting childhood memories will be made.
It's a dream, though, that Kelly Gardner never thought could come true for her 13-year-old son, Alex, who uses a wheelchair and ventilator due to a muscular disease and severe scoliosis.
But for the past few summers, Alex along with nearly 30 other campers from across Michigan, have spent a week realizing their dreams and overcoming physical boundaries – swimming, fishing, horseback riding, boating and even tree climbing – at Trail's Edge Camp for Ventilator-Dependent Children at Fowler Center in Mayville, Michigan.
“It's almost unbelievable at times the things he's able to do at camp,” says Kelly Gardner. “It gives him freedom and independence, and he no longer sees himself as being disabled. Now we never say never to anything Alex wants to experience.”
On June 6, 2003 Alex and his fellow campers took their dreams to new heights, as they become the first to climb into a tree house 25 feet off the ground, constructed especially for kids who use wheelchairs and ventilators.
The first-of-its-kind tree house and woodland retreat, named in memory of the University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children's Hospital's respiratory therapist Craig Van Laanen, was dedicated and officially open to Trail's Edge and Fowler Center campers. The dedication marked Trail's Edge's 15th anniversary and also coincided with the first day of the week-long camp.
Looking for new and unique experiences for ventilator-dependent children has been the hallmark of Trail’s Edge. Over the years, activities have included hot air balloon rides and airplane rides but it was the summer session of 2002, when campers first went tree climbing. Using a special harness and pulley system, ventilator-dependent campers without their wheelchairs rose safely off the ground and into the branches of a large red maple tree that the campers have affectionately named “Reta.”
Although he was initially nervous on his first climb up “Reta,” Alex says he felt a sense of freedom once in the branches and looking down at his wheelchair. Other campers, too, had similar experiences, and did not want to come down from the tree – giving Trail's Edge volunteers a great idea, recalls Mary Buschell, Trail's Edge Camp director and a respiratory care therapist at the U-M C.S. Mott Children's Hospital.
“At that point, we realized how incredible it would be to create an environment for our campers up in the trees,” 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. We knew a tree house would be the perfect place to show them that they can live in a world without boundaries.”
To get the project started, Buschell and other Trail's Edge volunteers enlisted the help of U-M A. Alfred Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning lecturer Kristine Synnes to design and construct the tree house.
Synnes, along with then-graduate students Cathy Maurer and Mark Weston and Taubman College of Architecture professor Peter von Buelow, was determined to create a tree house that would give campers “super mobility or mobility beyond a person's perceived mobility, regardless of physical restrictions or limitations” in an area that would not disturb the natural surroundings, she says.
The first obstacle facing the team, however, would prove to be its most challenging: With no trees strong enough to support a large tree house, Synnes and her team would need to design not only the tree house, but a support column for it that would blend with the natural surroundings.
With steel branching both downwards as roots and upwards as branches, the architectural team created a support column, called a cantilevered base, to cradle the tree house and blend with the natural wooded surroundings. The 11 foot x 32 foot tree house is also nestled within the leafy canopy of the campers' favorite climbing tree, “Reta."
Just like their tree climbing days, campers are now lifted up to the tree house without their wheelchairs using a harness and a pulley system. When they reach the tree house, campers are lowered into track-mounted chairs, allowing them to move around the entire structure. Railing also has been specially designed to give campers a safe, unobstructed view of the Fowler Center woodlands from their mobile seats.
“The kids inspired us to design a unique tree house that allows them to experience nature as we all do, despite their perceived mobility issues. Everyone, whether in a wheelchair or not, accesses the tree house in the same way. Up there, everyone is the same,” says Synnes.
While the tree house took 45 volunteers nearly two years to complete, Buschell and Synnes agree that the project's outcome far exceeded their expectations. And campers like Alex can't look forward to their magical new home up in the trees at Trail's Edge.
“The tree house is so cool.” says Alex. “I look forward to camp every year because it makes me feel like there isn't anything I can't do – even kids without disabilities have never done some of the things I've accomplished at camp.”
The experience even inspired Synnes to teach an architectural class at U-M that focuses on the concept of “supermobility" to provide her students with a new perspective on design and accessibility for people who use wheelchairs.
The tree house was built by dedicated volunteers and through the contributions of many including; the Philoptochos of the Greek Orthodox Church, Mott Children’s Hospital, the Christopher Reeve Foundation, the Detroit Red Wing Alumni association and the Craig Van Laanen Foundation.
Since Trail's Edge is only a week-long camp, the tree house also is open for all other campers at the Fowler Center to use throughout the year.
Trail's Edge Camp is run by health care professionals – nurses, respiratory therapists, physicians, physical therapists and occupational therapists – who double as camp counselors. Each child has a partner who provides primary, round-the-clock care, and every cabin has a leader and a health staff member to monitor each camper's well being. Campers, who stay at the camp for free, range in age from 5 to 18 years and most are repeat visitors.