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Colorado nonprofit in its 30th year of bringing wilderness experience to the disabled

By: Kelsey Kendall kelsey.kendall@gazette.com
July 4, 2016 Updated: July 4, 2016 at 5:58 pm
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Grant - Tucked away in the mountains northwest of Colorado Springs is a rustic patch of land not dissimilar to many other areas in the state. Until you look closer.

At 9,200 feet, the beautiful stands of aspen and Ponderosa pine aren't surprising. Neither are the fishing pond and the abundant wildlife.

What sets this wilderness area apart is the mile-long boardwalk that runs through it, bringing an experience so often taken for granted to a segment of the population that typically is limited when it comes to the outdoors.

Wilderness on Wheels, a nonprofit propped up by a host of volunteers, offers a unique setting for those with disabilities to enjoy nature.

"For so many years, there was just no availability for people in wheelchairs or scooters to have any kind of mountain adventures," WOW manager Barb Cramer said.

In 1986, that changed. And three decades later, the one-of-a-kind adventure continues at the base of Kenosha Pass. Thirteen campsites, five huts and two cabins sit on the property - and all are wheelchair-accessible.

"People with disabilities can have the same possibilities as able-bodied people," Cramer said.

Cramer, her husband, Bill, and Becky Harrison, an on-site volunteer, live full time in a cabin on the land during the camping season. Others show up throughout the summer.

"We have three of us who live up here, but we rely on volunteers to trim our bushes and trees, mow the lawns and take care of our trash," Cramer said. "We could not make it without volunteers."

Volunteers come from all walks of life. Boy Scouts built many of the benches on the property. And a motorcycle gang pitched in one weekend by cutting branches.

Harrison started volunteering at WOW two years ago and serves as a handyman of sorts, making sure the campsites have wood and carrying jugs of water to the one cabin without water, among other duties around the grounds.

"It's a summer vacation for me," Harrison said. "The rich people go to the Bahamas and Las Vegas and all that. Well, I get to come to the mountains. This may be a poor man's vacation, but it's the best vacation I've ever had."

Cramer and Harrison both have personal reasons for volunteering. Cramer is a former Paralympian who had been visiting WOW for 10 years when the former manager retired and she and Bill took over. Harrison's sister also is disabled and is honored with a plaque along the boardwalk.

"Volunteering up here with the disabled really helps me get real with what life's all about," Harrison said.

Frequent visitors to WOW include residents of group homes, nursing homes and rehabilitation centers - many of whom visit for day trips that include hiking, picnics and sightseeing.

"We've been going there for as long as I can remember," said Melissa Patterson, a program director at Eagles Nest Group Center in Bailey, where some of the clients are in wheelchairs. "We all enjoy hiking, looking at all the flowers, the trees and just everything growing - the scenery itself. It's amazing to be a part of for some of these guys."

In addition to volunteers, WOW relies on donations to pay for maintenance and bills. It costs around $40,000 per year to keep WOW operational, according to Cramer.

"For the total 30 years, we've stayed open because of donations, sponsors and all the people that come up and use our facilities," Cramer said.

Campsites don't have a set fee, though any donation is accepted. The cabins' requested donations range from $50 to $65 per night, Harrison said.

"Some of our people can't afford to come up here for the day, but someone might give us extra donations so it off-sets each other," Cramer said.

Though anyone can visit WOW, priority for reservations is given to those who are disabled and their family and friends. Last year, more than 1,500 people visited between Memorial Day and Oct. 15.

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Contact Kelsey Kendall: 636-0142

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