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Mission: Nothing’s impossible

How one man’s devastating injury led to a camp without limits

Bob Bardwell supervises new cabin construction at Ironwood Springs Christian Ranch. Photo by Sharon Dierberger

Mission: Nothing’s impossible
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I hear him before I see him: “Thankful and blessed!” he says with a chuckle to someone he’s just greeted in the lobby. And then Bob Bardwell rolls into view, a grin splitting his face, to join me in a front office at Ironwood Springs Christian Ranch.

He’s sitting in a blue-trimmed wheelchair that matches his hat and jacket. One wheel cover reads: “Don’t quit. Finish strong.” The other: “One nation under God.” His hat sports yet another inspirational mantra: “Miracles happen.”

Reaching out, he grips my hand with a beefy squeeze, peers through navy-rimmed glasses, and launches into an animated account of his work. The longer he talks, the more I struggle to separate his identity from his ranch, and the harder I find it to figure out whether the man made the mission or the mission made the man. Bardwell has no such trouble: It’s all God, he says.

He doesn’t mention until much later that he’s in the midst of one of the most difficult struggles he’s ever faced.

Bardwell established Ironwood Springs in 1976. His goal: to honor God and love people through retreats and camps for those who need them most. The ranch hosts wheelchair sports camps, ConnectAbilities camps for those with autism or cognitive challenges, retreats for families of fallen soldiers and those who are still serving, and turkey hunts for disabled veterans. Churches and businesses come, too, as do local horseback riders and snow tubers. But the heart of the camp beats for the disabled.

Building a ranch for the impaired wasn’t Bardwell’s “Plan A.” In his original script, he wanted to use his seminary degree and summer camp experience to work at camps for able-bodied youth. But a mere five weeks after graduation, an accident forced him to switch to “Plan B.”

On a hot July day in 1973, Bardwell was finishing a landscaping job for his parents’ heavy construction business at a high school track in Plainview, Minn. He and a co-worker needed to replace a snapped steel cable under the 12-ton Caterpillar they’d been using. It should have been a routine fix, and they were eager to be done. While Bardwell was beneath the excavator, his workmate accidentally pushed a lever the wrong way. The steel lip above the bucket dropped on Bardwell, crushing his ribs, collapsing his lungs, and severing his spinal cord. In an instant, he became a paraplegic.

Bardwell refused to let his story end in bitterness and defeat.

Over the next few years, Bardwell struggled to embrace the cataclysmic reality of what happened. Nothing came ­easily, and he grappled with heartache and depression. His marriage gradually crumbled, ending in divorce. He blames himself.

But Bardwell refused to let his story end in bitterness and defeat. He made a conscious choice—one he says he still has to make daily—to channel his efforts into all he could do. He embraced his paralysis and began to dream big. Now he seeks to infuse his “attitude is everything” outlook into all who visit or work at Ironwood Springs.

“The greatest destroyer of a bright future is dwelling on the past,” he says.

Today, Bardwell’s bright future is in jeopardy again. A year ago, he developed a saucer-sized pressure sore near his spine that still hasn’t fully healed. His wheelchair, the source of life-giving mobility, was also the cause of this life-threatening condition, jostling and rubbing a spot he can’t feel. Bardwell has drastically curtailed his activities, but doctors can’t assure him the wound will close. If it doesn’t, it could lead to an untreatable blood or bone infection.

That uncertainty adds urgency to every minute he spends on the ranch. After his family, it’s his most prized legacy.

Bardwell eventually remarried. He and his wife, Jode, had a daughter, then triplet daughters—this after doctors said they’d never have children. Now they have five grandchildren, too.

With Jode’s support, Bardwell has wheeled through more than 100 marathons and other wheelchair races across the country. He’s endured broken bones, pressure sores, sepsis, and hospitalizations. He’s written two books, given talks—including at the National Prayer Breakfast—and delivered wheelchairs to Ghana. He occasionally exchanges ideas with Joni Eareckson Tada. But all of that pales in comparison with his work at the ranch.

Bardwell picked a beautiful setting and has spent a lifetime—he’s 75 now—developing its physical and spiritual character.

“My accident wasn’t the path I’d have chosen—but it’s what God had for me,” Bardwell says. “And He’s blessed me abundantly.”

Bardwell (with blue cap) at the chuck wagon evening at the National Wheelchair Sports Camp at Ironwood Springs Christian Ranch.

Bardwell (with blue cap) at the chuck wagon evening at the National Wheelchair Sports Camp at Ironwood Springs Christian Ranch. Photo by Pam Dose

TUCKED ALONG THE BANKS of the Root River, the ranch lies on 120 acres in southeastern Minnesota, hidden away from urban busyness. Handicap-accessible camp amenities nestle amid walnut, maple, and ironwood forests skirted by farm fields.

Miracle Lodge stands at the heart of it all. Bardwell says it took nine years of work, prayer, and donations to complete the massive pine-log conference center. The same perseverance helped him oversee construction of the camp’s other 20 buildings. Not counting snow tubers, about 10,000 visitors come annually.

The peaceful natural setting helps distract guests from daily struggles that Bardwell understands better than most. Whether it’s a physical or cognitive disability, combat PTSD, or caregiver burnout, Bardwell wants this place to be a haven.

But breaking barriers is also embedded in the mentality here. Bardwell encourages the staff to help visitors venture outside their comfort zones and try new activities. He hopes they’ll bring that changed attitude home. Bardwell and ranch leaders have designed an environment conducive to dispelling fears and attempting challenges—like lifts that help disabled people mount a horse or a zip line that hoists campers out of their wheelchairs and sends them whooshing over the river.

Dawn Olson and her son, Jacob, started coming to Ironwood Springs in 2017. Jacob, 24, has a rare disorder that severely impairs brain function and renders him nonverbal and unable to walk.

At camp, Jacob got to ride a horse for the first time, practice adaptive archery, and try his now-favorite adventure: zip lining. “Our son was laughing and giggling. I had so many happy tears watching him do something fun,” Olson says.

“I overheard Bob say, ‘Look at that young man smile. He looks so free!’ It gave me goosebumps to hear someone say that about my son,” recalls Olson. Back in their small Iowa hometown, businessmen heard how much Jacob loved the ranch’s all-terrain wheelchair, so they pitched in and bought him one. And Olson developed connections with other ­families that understand living with disabilities.

“I wish everyone could meet Bob—the good he does for others—he’s my inspiration,” she says, voice cracking.

Pixie Clement says her autistic son, Mason, blossomed after experiencing Ironwood for the first time at age 12. He arrived fearful and barely spoke to others, but quickly fell in love with the natural setting, staff, archery range, and zip line. He’s attended annually since then and loves talking about it.

“Camp helped Mason realize being different is fine, and so is making mistakes,” Clement says. It helps that Bardwell is transparent about his own struggles but always radiates confidence in God, she adds. Mason, now 17, will return to camp this summer—as a staff assistant.

Tracy Bashore, the camp’s executive director, watches Jacob Olson on the zip line.

Tracy Bashore, the camp’s executive director, watches Jacob Olson on the zip line. Photo by Dawn Olson

THIS WEEKEND, disabled veterans and their families are staying at the lodge for a turkey hunt under the camp’s Operation Welcome Home umbrella.

One vet, Josh Walker, pops his head into the office to greet Bardwell. He’s bearded and burly, with his wife and a gaggle of kids along for the weekend. Bardwell lights up and calls him “My buddy, Josh!” They talk about wrestling, kids, and hunting. Walker has been coming to the ranch for about 10 years. He tells Bardwell how much fun his family is having.

Later, Bardwell sees Walker’s 8-year-old daughter and makes a beeline to her. He takes her hand, looks in her eyes, and asks many questions. He listens, unhurried.

A veteran dressed in camouflage and rubber knee boots heading to a turkey blind pulls me aside: “This is a healing place,” he says, blinking back tears. “Bob motivates us all … even during his difficulties right now, he looks for the good.”

Bardwell’s motivational methods include inspirational phrases that might sound trite coming from anyone else. “God’s got a plan.” “Heed the call.” “Do whatever it takes.” “Don’t let peace robbers steal your joy.” “Where there’s a wheel there’s a way.”

Bardwell says he wakes up daily and speaks those truths to his own soul. If he doesn’t, the peace robbers prey, reminding him how tenuous his future could be. To keep his current health challenge in perspective, he intentionally thinks about how God used his original injury for good.

On a huge granite rock near the ranch entrance, Bardwell had someone paint Psalm 62:6—“The Lord is my rock and my fortress, the Lord is my salvation.”

He is quick to deflect accolades, preferring to praise the camp’s current leaders, staffers, and volunteers, who have run the camp since he stepped down as executive director and semi-retired in 2018.

“I handed off the keys,” he says. “My job is to help everyone be successful to keep improving the ranch. I’m just a farmer, construction worker, dreamer.”

Following Bardwell out of the lodge, I meet several of the men who are helping build three custom cabins under his supervision. He powerfully wheels himself up a ramp and onto the site, greeted by pounding hammers and Paul Brekke, a slim, gray-haired 80-year-old who’s helping install fragrant, fresh-sawed cedar wainscoting. Arlan Walton, 87, normally carries his oxygen tank with him while he works. Bob Barnhart, 79, washes all the ranch’s windows until they sparkle, and octogenarians Rick and Marie Dodds help wherever needed.

Jim Brown, a retired carpenter, and his wife Sandy park their RV on the grounds and volunteer every summer, doing everything from weed whipping to carpentry. His eyes crinkle cheerily as he says he also has to make sure Bardwell doesn’t get into trouble, like the time he almost tipped over a forklift he was driving.

At lunchtime, Bardwell banters with the men while he eats a turkey sandwich, quick to laugh at himself—“I’m ­sitting down on the job again!” Someone at the table says Bardwell gets more done sitting down than anyone who walks.

AFTER LUNCH, Tracy Bashore, the camp’s executive director, whisks me around the camp in a covered golf cart, despite a chilly rain. He points out the spot near the petting zoo where they plan to build a new sensory-education building for autistic and special needs campers.

Bashore had a successful job with IBM before coming here. He says he’s tried to build on Bardwell’s foundation and views Bardwell as a mentor and visionary, but not a “details” guy. Sometimes that leads to Bardwell having great ideas, but not always thinking through a realistic way to make them happen. Bardwell doesn’t see hurdles, whereas Bashore sees the practical side of implementation. “Sometimes I need Bob’s calming whisper in my ear: ‘Have faith. It’ll work,’” Bashore says.

But Bardwell insists the ranch needed Bashore—someone with tech experience and wisdom to lead to the next level. He’s focused on family retreats for the disabled, including those with autism, whom the county specifically asked the ranch to help due to rising autism numbers. The camp also ramped up programs for active military, veterans, and ­families of the fallen, and will soon offer retreats for law enforcement officers.

Players competing at wheelchair soccer at the National Wheelchair Sports Camp

Players competing at wheelchair soccer at the National Wheelchair Sports Camp Photo by Justin Brown

The National Wheelchair Sports Camp Bardwell founded 37 years ago is still a big draw each summer. Bardwell, a champion wrestler before his accident, wants visitors to embrace physical challenges and adaptive sports.

Matt Van Dixon, program director since 2021, says it was Bardwell and the ranch programs and setting that prompted him to leave teaching in California. Prior to that, he developed a high-profile education program with the San Francisco 49ers. He and his wife have three children, one with autism. Van Dixon especially loves the numerous ranch experiences available for the cognitively impaired—like ­petting horses with multicolored, paint-soaked hands, and interacting with other animals, including Clyde, the camp camel.

“We want to honor Bardwell’s legacy—and make it even better,” Van Dixon says, describing Bardwell as a man who changes the life trajectory of people who then impact others—in an ever-widening ripple. Van Dixon also wants to foster church partnerships as Bardwell spends more time with grandchildren and less at camp.

“After you’ve talked with Bob for five minutes, you want to hand him a check for $500 for the ranch, but we want to take the load off him,” Van Dixon says.

Tending to that fundraising pipeline is even more crucial as Bardwell continues to battle health problems.

He missed months at the camp last year. In the fall, doctors amputated his right leg after it lost circulation and turned black. “I didn’t use it anyway,” jokes Bardwell. He spent more than a month in the hospital and another in rehab. Van Dixon says Bardwell encouraged others even from his hospital bed.

In a rare moment of solemnity, Bardwell admits this has been one of the hardest periods he’s ever experienced. It keeps him proverbially on his knees. But he’s determined not to let it steal his joy. And he has a quote for that, too. This time it’s Proverbs 14:30: “A heart at peace gives life to the body.”

He looks at me, his brow furrowed, but he’s speaking to himself: “Don’t quit. Finish strong. God is good.” And then, without skipping a beat, he grips the wheels of his chair and pushes off to welcome another group of veterans coming in the door.

Sharon Dierberger

Sharon is a senior writer for WORLD. She is a World Journalism Institute and Northwestern University graduate and holds two master’s degrees. She has served as university teacher, businesswoman, clinical exercise physiologist, homeschooling mom, and Division 1 athlete. Sharon resides in Stillwater, Minn., with her husband, Bill.


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