ABC Partner Stories: Ironwood Springs

On July 16, 1973, the life and perspective of Ironwood Springs founder Bob Bardwell changed forever. A construction accident left him paralyzed from the waist down, opening a new chapter in his life—one that has richly benefited persons with disabilities in our area. As Bob puts it, “instead of losing the use of my two legs, I gained 65 wheels.”

Inspired by fond memories of time spent at the Horn Creek Ranch in Colorado, Bob set out to foster a similar experience along the scenic Root River near Stewartville, Minnesota. With that, Ironwood Springs Christian Ranch was born.

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Jan Odle of Ironwood (left) poses with the ABC work crew in front of Ironwood’s Miracle Lodge in 2017.

Today Ironwood offers an inclusive, welcoming environment for everyone. It also has become a magnet for visitors with disabilities or special needs.

In the design of the facilities, Bob drew on his own experiences a person with physical challenges to ensure that accessibility was at the forefront of all aspects of the visitor experience. Paved walkways lead to buildings equipped with wide doorways and ramps or elevators. Rooms are specifically designed for wheelchair access, with extra space between beds and bathrooms with roll-in showers. Recreational attractions such as a wheelchair-accessible mini golf course, rock wall and outdoor pool feature prominently in guest itineraries.

Now in its 31st year, Ironwood’s National Wheelchair Sports Camp in June is the largest event of its kind in the United States. Ironwood hosts a number of other special programs for persons with disabilities, such as a summer Wheelchair Family Camp and Adult ConnectAbilities Camps throughout the year. Recent initiatives have included “Operation Welcome Home,” retreats and programs specially designed for active duty, returning veterans and their families.

Breaking down barriers, pushing one’s comfort zone and growing through the process is a common theme across all Ironwood events. Whether it is riding a zip line, horseback riding or just contemplating the beauty of nature, Ironwood has now inspired generations of persons with physical and cognitive challenges.

The same is true regarding employment. Beginning in 1998, ABC crews have often been tasked with housekeeping duties for the cabins and lodges at Ironwood. Bob and his staff know first-hand what persons with disabilities can achieve when given the chance, so their decision to partner with ABC for staffing Ironwood came easily. Bob often refers to the crew as “Awesome Bunch of Cleaners.”

“We love having the ABC crew here at Ironwood Springs. They work hard to keep our visitors rooms clean and comfortable.”

– Jan Odle, Ironwood Hospitality Director

On a typical morning in March, seven ABC workers and their job coach were already hard at work turning down rooms. Each member of the crew had a special role to play in the process. Adam and Josh removed the old linens followed by Paul and Ross putting on a fresh set. Carol dusted, Marcel readied bathrooms, and Felicia performed a final inspection, overseen by ABC Job Coach Samantha.

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Josh and Adam turn down a bedroom in one of Ironwood’s guest lodges.

The team swept from room to room leaving behind a fresh start to the day for the Ranch’s guests. At noon the team gathered for lunch together in the lodge—an experience that helps bond the workers and makes employment at Ironwood so special for everyone involved.

“Ironwood is a setting like no other—it is a perfect environment for our workers to show what they are capable of,” said Lynda Kuscienko. Now a Development Specialist with ABC, Lynda previously worked as a job coach supervisor whose work crews included those at Ironwood.

The two organizations look to continue to build on this remarkable partnership in the years to come, with the benefits enjoyed by future generations of visitors and workers.

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