Imagine being a strong, vibrant 17-year-old with aspirations of becoming a professional hockey player. Now imagine sitting on your grandmother’s couch, feeling the sensation of a bolt of lightning shooting throughout your upper body, thinking you’re having a heart attack and within hours being paralyzed from the neck down. That scenario was Trent Dubberke’s reality when a form of an aneurism burst around the 5th cervical vertebrae in his neck after unknowing being attached to his spinal cord since birth.
Trent, now 24, was one of a multitude of campers I met in June at the National Wheelchair Sports & Recreation Camp in Stewartville, MN – the 25th anniversary of the event. In talking to Trent, who has regained enough upper-body function to push a manual wheelchair and live independently, it was clear the impact that the camp has made on his life.
“Coming to this camp last year changed my life and made me feel truly comfortable with being in a wheelchair,” said Trent. “It made the challenges that I have now easier to overcome. I saw that being in a wheelchair could be cool and not a taboo.”
When camp founder and director Bob Bardwell first contacted me and invited me to come speak at the camp, I really didn’t know what to expect. I’ve been a wheelchair user for 22 years and I’ve was blessed during my 14-year wheelchair rugby career to travel throughout North America, Europe and Australia. I’ve sat in the Roman Coliseum, soaking in the richness of the history and also on the gold medal stand in two Paralympics. But nowhere have I experienced the awe of what I experienced in rural Minnesota — the collective stories, like those similar to Trent, from the entirety of the wheelchair community in the coming together of the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual growth — as I did during my six days at camp. All of which takes its cue from Bob Bardwell who makes no distinction between quadriplegic, paraplegic, amputee, manual or power chair user, etc. – quite uncommon in a world where people with disabilities tend to segregate themselves based upon their label or category of disability.
The miracle going on at Ironwood Springs started almost 40 years ago when Bob’s father purchased the land. After Bob finished college in the early 1970s, he endured a spinal cord injury and became a paraplegic. From there, a dream, a determined, positive spirit and most importantly a deep abiding faith coupled with a multitude of supporters led to what resides on the ranch today – the most fully wheelchair accessible outdoor camp in the world.
When you talk to Bob, he’s quick to deflect all credit both upwards and outwards. The center of the ranch is the aptly named Miracle Lodge which was completed two years ago with rooms that are all first class and bathrooms providing better accessibility than some Five Star hotels. Bob’s never quit attitude is evident with every inscription you see throughout the ranch. Never one to take on debt for the ranch, Bob has story after story about how each building on the site from the lodge to the dining hall to the chapel to the equestrian arena and the wheelchair friendly paths and bridges throughout the site were completed through prayer and scores of private donations from companies as well as individuals. The donations come in the form of everything from cash to skilled construction labor to logging and transportation companies providing time and resources as well as youth groups that come from as far as away as Indiana to give of their time to work on the ranch.
The sports camp itself is also about the selfless efforts of able-bodied volunteers, legends and veterans of the wheelchair sports movement who attend year after year to give back and serve the next generation of wheelchair users. It’s about Jim Martinson, a double amputee, losing both legs in Vietnam and coming back from the war, eventually completing a marathon in a 65-pound hospital chair and then quiet time watching his kids ski. Determined there must be a better way, he become a pioneer of the lightweight sports chair and mono-skis we take for granted today. He built an accessible ski through nothing more than an idea as well as trial and error. Jim has been a stable at a camp and keeps coming back because of the joy he sees in the campers.
“The biggest thrill is to see the smiles on the (camper’s) faces,” he said. “When they first get here, there’s some fear. But as the week goes on, you see the laughter, joy and excitement they get from the events like getting welts from paint ball. It helps me to keep my youth and just have fun.”
Jim spends a good deal of his week working on campers wheelchairs, to better customize each chair per the uniqueness of each user, along with other camp regulars like 1988 Olympic bronze medalist Craig Blanchette. Blanchette, a double amputee, once had a famous commercial in the Nike Just Do It ad campaign. Another member of the makeshift body shop on the first floor of the Miracle Lodge is 1996 Paralympic bronze medalist Jeff Muralt, also a double amputee, who says camp is his favorite week of the year.
“When I first started coming to camp in the early ‘90s, it was to work out with guys like Jim and Craig,” Jeff recalled. “Now, it’s to watch the kids develop; to work on their chairs and help them maximize their push by stripping down some of the excess weight of the chairs mostly through lowering some of the (wheelchair) backs, removing arm rests and tip bars. The parents usually have a fearful look but then (are thankful) once they see how much better (their child pushes their wheelchair).”
One such benefactor of the “body shop” is 19-year-old Lexy Bender. Lexy was born with cerebral palsy. Like Trent Dubberke, Lexy was inspired through last year’s camp to move from a power to a manual chair at last year’s camp and never looked back.
“One of the other campers Ian (Sweep) lives in the same town I do and if he ever saw me back in my power chair he’d probably call me lazy and make me push three miles, “ Lexy joked.
Unfortunately, Lexy’s insurance company refused to pay for a new manual chair so she’s using the same chair she’s had since the third grade. Lexy’s dilemma upon arriving at camp was that she now had a manual not suited for her. But as you can probably imagine, no obstacle is too big to overcome at the Miracle Lodge. By week’s end, Lexy’s outdated wheelchair had been completely rebuilt using spare parts and the kind of innovation that led to the first light weight wheelchair so many years ago. Lexy left camp with the ability to open a manual door she previously had been unable to open, a smoother, more effortless push and a beautiful smile on her warm, glowing face.
All in all, 80 participants from 13 states as well as one each from Canada, Columbia an three from Africa took place in a fulfilling week of activities ranging from traditional, wheelchair sports like tennis and softball to more elaborate events like paint ball, water sports and horseback riding. For nine-year-old Lilly Stiernagli, who told me she enjoyed horseback riding the most, her mother Jenny believes the confidence of trying different events at the camp gives her confidence to try new things outside of camp.
“Even though she’s not comfortable trying everything in the beginning, watching others gives her confidence to try different things.” Said Jenny.
For me, the camp could ultimately be summed up in Trent’s words, “You learn here that the key to making changes in life is not the physical aspects of life, how you look, the clothes you wear; but changing the way you think and how you choose to look at life”. In other words, you can’t control much of what happens in life but you can control your attitude in how you deal with each trail and tribulation that arises. I can say now that although I came to camp to minister to others, I felt ministered to and am a better person for the six days I spent there. Upon reflecting on my experience and giving thanks in prayer, I exited the camp on the final day, driving under an archway with the inscription: Hope You’ve Been Blessed, Come Again. I can answer in the affirmative on both counts.