Taking kids with special needs to new heights

University of Michigan Health System
Wednesday, 2 June 2004

Craig Van Laanen Tree House dedication on June 6 to mark 15th anniversary of Trail's Edge Camp

It's a 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, has spent a week realizing his dreams and overcoming physical boundaries swimming, fishing, horseback riding, boating and even tree climbing at Trail's Edge Camp for Ventilator-Dependant Children at Fowler Center in Mayville, Mich.

"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."

This summer Alex and his fellow campers will again take the dreams of children with disabilities to new heights, as they become the first to climb into a tree house 22 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, will be dedicated and officially open to Trail's Edge and Fowler Center campers on June 6. The dedication will mark Trail's Edge's 15 th anniversary, and also coincide with the first day of the week-long camp.

Two years ago, Trail's Edge first offered its campers the chance to climb trees using a special harness and pulley system that lifted ventilator-dependent campers, without their wheelchairs, safely off the ground and into the branches of a large red maple tree campers 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 feet by 32 feet tree house is also nestled within the leafy canopy of the campers' favorite climbing tree, "Reta."

Just like their tree climbing days, campers will be lifted up to the tree house without their wheelchairs using a harness and a pulley system. When they reach the tree house, a chair, similar to a ski lift, will swing in behind the secured campers, 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 tree house is capable of holding four children in wheelchairs and about 18 adults.

"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 wait to try out their new home up in the trees at Trail's Edge.

"The tree house is going to be so cool. I'm really excited to try it out," 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.

Contributions from the Christopher Reeve Foundation, the Philoptochos of the Greek Orthodox Church and Craig Van Laanen Foundation totaling $110,000 made the tree house project possible.

Since Trail's Edge is only a week-long camp, the tree house will also be 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, generally range in age from 3 to 18 years and most are repeat visitors.

To learn more about Trail's Edge Camp, visit www.med.umich.edu/mott/1about/abhetra.htm. More information about the A. Alfred Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning is also available online at www.caup.umich.edu.

For more information, or to contact University of Michigan Health System, see their website at: www.med.umich.edu

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