Summer camp is a rite of passage for many children. It’s a place where kids can go to make new friends, step outside their comfort zones and practice new skills. There are hiking paths and playing fields, mess halls and ropes courses, and, above all, opportunities and experiences that change lives forever.
But finding the perfect camp isn’t always a simple task, especially for children with special needs. Luckily, there’s a place in Eden Prairie that has helped children and adults with special needs experience the joy of camp throughout the year. The property, nestled in the woods on Birch Island Lake, not far from the hustle and bustle of town, is now known as Camp Eden Wood, operated under the umbrella of True Friends.
The site itself has long been part of a tradition to serve families and kids facing challenges, and in 1999, 12 acres of the approximately 20-acre site were added to the National Register of Historic Places. In fact, a look back in its history shows more than 90 years of programs supporting this mission.
It all began with tuberculosis. In the early 1900s, state and local governments set up sanatoriums to aid in the treatment of tuberculosis. One sanatorium was located on the edge of Eden Prairie and Minnetonka.
But there wasn’t yet a system in place to help kids with “juvenile tuberculosis,” who were infected by the disease but weren’t symptomatic or contagious. So local philanthropist George Christian stepped up to the plate and built a camp, the Glen Lake Children’s Camp, to be run by the local sanatorium.
That first summer of 1925, 85 children enjoyed a daily routine focused on “healthy bodies, social skills, fresh air and sunshine,” says Betsy Adams, former chair of the Heritage Preservation Commission and past president of the Eden Prairie Historical Society.
At the end of summer they even held a competition for best tan and weight gained. The goal was “to provide a summer in the country … to prevent their infection from developing into active disease.”
The 1940s brought the discovery of antibiotics, and shortly thereafter, the end of tuberculosis sanatoriums and camps in Minnesota.
But that wasn’t the end of the story for Glen Lake Children’s Camp. Although operations ceased momentarily in the 1950s, within a few years, Arc of Hennepin County reopened the property as Camp Indian Chief, serving people with developmental disabilities.
In the 1983, the city of Eden Prairie took over ownership of the property, under the condition that it be used to benefit children and adults with disabilities. The property was renamed Camp Eden Wood, and in 1994, the city leased the camp to the non-profit Friendship Ventures, known today as True Friends.
True Friends is a large non-profit serving nearly 4,000 children and adults with physical, developmental and learning disabilities each year at their five sites around Minnesota. Camp Eden Wood’s core services include day camp, resident camp and respite care programs, offered year-round, as well as travel and partner programs.
They may be serving more people than in the early days as Glen Lake Children’s Camp, but the core principles remain the same. “There’s this environment where people feel accepted for who they are,” says president and CEO Ed Stracke. “I can’t tell you how many lives have been changed by these camps,” he adds.
When you walk through Camp Eden Wood today, there have clearly been changes throughout the years. Cabins are now winterized, there is a new dining hall and welcome lodge, spaces accommodate wheel chairs, and there is a ropes course and climbing tower on the property. Walk toward the historic district of the camp where the original dormitory and cafeteria still stand, and you’ll notice a memorial, reminding visitors of Christian’s original wish “for the health and happiness of all children.” Ask any camper or parent today and they’ll agree: The mission lives on.
Enroll in programs at truefriends.org. Special themes this summer include Art (June 12-14), Time Travel (June 19-24) and Disney (June 26-July 1). Check online for more themes and information.