Camp lets kids with medical conditions be kids

Gathering includes transplant nurses, physicians and community volunteers

By Kathleen Galligan
Detroit Free Press

HOLLY, Mich. (AP) — Sam Schnepp can’t decide what his favorite camp activity was: the zip line or giant rope swing.

“They were both scary and both very high up,” he said.

It may seem like a common dilemma for an 11-year-old boy, but it was much more than that for Sam.

Diagnosed with biliary atresia — a liver disease — at 8 weeks old, the East Lansing boy had never been able to go to camp. He nearly died several times last year before receiving a liver transplant Sept. 26 at the University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital. He spent four months there following his surgery.

Recently, Sam got to experience camp for the first time, thanks to Camp Michitanki (Michigan Transplant Kids) at the YMCA’s Camp Ohiyesa in Holly. He was one of 85 children ages 7-17 to attend the weeklong camp.

Michitanki co-founder Vicki Shieck, a transplant nurse at Mott, said the camp has been her dream.

“I am so happy to see him at camp this year,” Shieck said of Sam. “Here, scars are normal. I tell the kids, you should be proud of them -- you earned them. You have been on a journey that other people have not.”

Sponsored by the University of Michigan, Shieck and fellow nurse Doug Armstrong, who previously worked at the U-M Transplant Center, teamed up 16 years ago. They chartered a bus and drove 10 children to a transplant camp in West Virginia.

“It was really a lot of driving for two days of camping,” Armstrong said.

In 2003, they partnered with the YMCA. The camp meets once a year in late June and includes transplant nurses, physicians and community volunteers who work with YMCA staff.

“From the time they are diagnosed, they are given a list of can’ts. At camp, it’s all about what they can do,” Armstrong said.

Armstrong is the CEO of North Star Reach, a nonprofit located on 105 acres in Pinckney. Scheduled to open in the summer of 2014, it will serve 1,500 children with serious illnesses year-round, including the Camp Michitanki kids.

“Every week in the summer, different medical conditions will be served,” Armstrong said. “We’ll have a state-of-the-art medical center equipped with dialysis and breathing machines — everything the kids need.”

The camps also provide a respite for families.

Sam’s mother, Leanne Schnepp, said she was excited her son got to go. She and her husband, Marty, let their daughter stay with her parents and took advantage of their first week alone in 11 years.

“I knew he would have a bunch of people around him that understand what he’s going through,” she said.

Sam said he already misses his fellow campers from Cabin 5. One of those boys, Isaac Raqib, 11, of Ann Arbor received a kidney transplant seven years ago. Dismounting from his horse after a leisurely afternoon ride, Isaac smiled and said, “I never felt so alive.”

At the end of the week, the kids were asked to say one word to describe the  camp.

“I screamed, ‘Awesomeness!’” Sam said.

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