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Grizzly Creek Ranch Is 'Freeing' For Kids With Disabilities

Grizzly Creek Ranch in Portola, California is a common destination for 5th and 6th graders from Washoe County. They study STEAM education and team building with Sierra Nevada Journeys, which owns the camp. But come June, the ranch is summer camp central, hosting groups like the Muscular Dystrophy Association, which recently brought 51 campers.

A dozen or so kids, some walking and others powered by their wheelchairs, make their way up paved trails to the zip line, a summer camp staple, at Grizzly Creek. A strong rope, equipped with a special harness that holds a purple fabric seat, is tied between huge pine trees in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Ethan Ray takes his seat and is hoisted into the air. 

Ethan is one of several kids visiting with the Muscular Dystrophy Association, or MDA. For children living with neuromuscular diseases, which impair functioning of the muscles, the typical camp experiences are not always possible. The ranch, though, is a fully ADA-accessible facility. The kids fill their time with everything from pillowcase making and crafts to activities like swimming, zip lining and archery.

“So, you can see here that the rig that's set up is not only in the ground, so that it holds the bow, but when the wheelchair approaches it, ” explained Camp Director Mark Owen.

He and his wife live onsite and stay year-round. We watch together as two campers roll their wheelchairs to bales of hay that mark the shooting line. The kids clasp their bows and aim at targets that rest across a grassy meadow.

A volunteer helps a camper at the archery range.

“They get some great assistance in holding the bow and drawing the bow in such a fashion that they can have a successful experience," Owen said. "You want them to enjoy what they're doing, not struggle with the equipment. And that's the magic of it.”

Alexander Vargas is one of the campers. He confidently dons a white lab coat in honor of today’s dress-up day.

“Well, today's theme is actually ‘your dream job,’" Alexander said, "so it would make sense that I would dress according to a nuclear physicist or astrophysicists.”

This is Alexander’s 8th year coming here. Camp, for him, is freeing.

Alexander Vargas remarks on his experiences at MDA summer camp at Grizzly Creek.

“Back where I live, it's harder for kids in my area to understand what I go through on a day-to-day basis. Absolutely, I don't think they realize how much they are gifted.”

For Alexander, even small routine tasks are challenging, but here he says he feels understood.

"It's the one week a year where I feel normal," Alexander said. "I get to be around kids that experience the same daily struggles that I do: showering by myself, brushing my teeth by myself and those things. It almost feels like I can conquer the world almost. I get to be around kids just like me, so I feel like I am not alone."

For Mark Owen and the MDA, that is the payoff they hope for. Owen is a retired Brigadier General with the U.S. Air Force and worked in the NASA space program building satellites and launching rockets. He was even the director of Cape Canaveral for a couple years. Long before his successful career, he was inspired by a sixth grade teacher who made him think goals like that were possible.

“I want to be able to create an environment that inspires kids to be all that they can be," Owen said. "There's a process and there's a path to getting there, so this is a place of being a horizon, being a point on the horizon, establishing a horizon for themselves, personal goals, personal confidence, which the country gave me as a veteran, and I want to pass that on to the next generation.”

Peyton Navarrette works with the MDA of Northern California, which also includes Northern Nevada campers. She says the effects of camp lasts long after the week ends.

“It really does," Navarette said. "Being around other children with neuromuscular diseases, it helps show them that they're not alone in this world. It doesn't matter if you can walk on your own or you have to have assistance. You can do the same things as everybody else, and they have that confidence to try new things.”

Along with MDA, Grizzly Creek welcomes groups like Washoe County School District Special Education and the United Cerebral Palsy Autism Center of Excellence.

Holly Hutchings is a former reporter at KUNR Public Radio.
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