Summer Camp is a fond memory for many of us in South Dakota. Nature trails, lakes and bonfires still take us back in time. But for many with disabilities it’s an experience they cannot relate to--until now.
Joy Nelson has two passions – 1880’s history and horses
“I was horse crazy since the time I could talk. … My parents have the old movies they dressed me up like the little girl I’m supposed to be but I’m dressed up in my cowboy hat and boots and belt on riding my rocking horse with my dress on – it was always there,” says Nelson.
It’s that love of horses that led Nelson to move from Watertown to the country. The fifty-something real estate broker bought the land in 1989 and started transforming it.
“I moved in an old barn and old granary. That’s as much as I got done that winter,” says Nelson. “The next spring I built my house, put up the fences started to bring the horses to the ranch. Every year I added new projects. The indoor arena another machine shed to store the buggies and tractors.”
While she bought the land to have horses, Joy Nelson soon began hosting horse events, church and civic functions and even handi-riders which is designed for people with disabilities.
“Knowing how they all felt about it, I could see how much they enjoyed it out here and how special this place was for me. There’s serenity out here and a peacefulness that we don’t find in our hectic business world and that’s the world I live in. It was a real solace for me to live here and I understand the magic between people and horses and disabled children and I started to think that this needs to be shared and I didn’t have to have it all to myself,” says Nelson.
That’s how the idea and conversations began to gift her land to Lutheran Outdoors and create a camp for families with a member with special needs. Nelson says there are 20,000 families in the region that could benefit from this camp. It took nine years of planning and building and fundraising before the first campers arrived this summer and stepped back in time.
Joy Nelson still lives in her house but now she has her own 1880’s town. Main Street on Joy Ranch is a replica town with a country doctor, saloon called the thirsty boot and bunk houses. There’s even a church on a nearby hill. Horses and buggies are common place through these parts. And so are smiles and giggles on faces that are often etched with fear of trying new things.
While it’s old fashioned on the outside, it is state of the art and handicapped accessible on the inside. There are wheel in showers and everything is spaced properly for wheelchairs. But the decor is purely from another time.
Down the hill from the country church is a lake with canoes and paddle boats and a pontoon. Kimberly Wells follows her son Brian where he takes off on a pontoon ride with his father and other campers.
“I don’t think we would have ever sent Brian to a camp with other youths because we’re over protected and he has special needs. We would be worried about him going off by himself. So to have a camp for him to go to and we can also come with him and have all these activities he can explore has just been amazing,” says Wells.
The six week summer season at Joy Ranch includes camps for families, grandparents, teen missions and children with special needs. But this week is specifically for families with any member with a disability. It’s called “We Get It Camp”. Wells says for her it’s a chance to connect with other parents who know and understand what parents like her got through every day.
“We feel totally relaxed being around other families with children with special needs – because they know what we go through every day to do what we can for our children they all relate and understand what the struggles can be sometimes,” says Wells.
For her son Brian, who has downs syndrome she says it’s all about trying new things. Wells says their needs are met before they even ask. She says that rarely happens for them.
It’s those needs that keep the staff at the bible camp constantly planning. Kyle Debertin, Camp Director, says since it’s the first summer the staff has to be flexible and approach every day as unique because each family is unique.
“When they’re planning a picnic we have to find some shade and we have several people in wheel chairs so it needs to be easy for them,” says Debertin. “This is how this place was built and we can figure this out and make it a great picnic or a riding experience for the kids,” he says.
Debertin says what’s most important though is to give families time together and remove some of their everyday stresses.
Jessica Malsam came to camp with her parents Conrad and Jackie.
“We never let her out of our sight and this just seemed like a starter camp a safe camp where we could be there with her,” says Jackie Malsam.
The Malsam’s are from Hosmer. Jackie says they’re the only family in town with a special needs child. Jessica is 14 and has a genetic disorder, is also developmentally delayed and has diabetes.
“Usually she’s such an introvert just wants to sit in the house in her safe zone. That’s one thing since we’ve been here she hasn’t sat down. She wants to go go go. There’re times we want to take a five minute break and we could take a five minute break but Jessica she’s been on the move the whole time,” says Jackie Malsam.
Joy Ranch is open year round for retreats, weddings in the country church and even family reunions.