Nestled in Waterford, Maine, NSSRA participants have been spending a week at Camp Wigwam for over 40 years. Beginning in the 1970s, Camp Wigwam is NSSRA’s longest-running cooperative partnership. Bob Strauss, the camp’s owner and director, invited NSSRA participants out for a vacation all the way back in 1977, and NSSRA has returned each year since. An eight-day trip for adults 18 and up, participants board an airplane and head to the East Coast for what is now known as “The Maine Experience.” Days at Camp Wigwam are jam-packed with adventures and activities, but most importantly, participants learn to work together, forging friendships and finding independence in ways they don’t get to experience at home.
Each morning begins with the rallying call of an old-fashioned bugle horn, followed by the whole camp reciting the Pledge of Allegiance together and enjoying breakfast in the lodge. Every day is full of new adventures and experiences, everything from mountain climbing, boogie boarding in the nearby Atlantic Ocean, tubing on Bear Lake, woodworking, archery and visiting Stephen King’s apple orchard. Every night participants gather around the campfire for stories and songs or inside for dancing and games.
“The Wigwam experience for NSSRA participants is designed to provide an environment of acceptance, of friendship, and of fun,” said Strauss. “Participants revel in the spirit of Wigwam through their memories of my parents “Big Ed” and Helen, and through the tireless work of so many dedicated NSSRA staff.”
“And it’s just a lot of fun,” Strauss continued. “We have exciting kickball games, rousing campfires with traditional stories, songs and cheers, crazy inflatable tubing rides behind the ski boat and wild fishing trips with big Rob Bulla. There are trips to the Atlantic Ocean at Old Orchard Beach, where there is one cardinal rule not to be broken… no waking up Bob from his nap!”
Camp Director Bob Strauss’ influence is central to the impact on participants, and because of his personal involvement in each of their experiences, he is an NSSRA hero. His energetic approach in the camp’s day-to-day activities makes everyone feel like part of the family, and his commitment goes far beyond his welcoming and enthusiastic nature. His philosophy on inclusion guarantees that everyone will be involved and have a great time, and the campers who return look forward to seeing him and consider him a friend. “One of the things we do is climb our local mountain, and that’s a huge thing,” explained Strauss. “It doesn’t matter what someone’s physical disabilities might be, we get everybody up that mountain.” Participants’ journey to the top, and the spectacular view once they arrive, become a permanent part of their experience.
Additionally, the trip gives NSSRA staff the opportunity to teach independence in a way that is so different from the independence taught in an hour-long weekly program. Everyone is away from their families, having the traditional camp experience enjoyed by so many. And then, after all the s’mores have been consumed and the campfire songs have been sung, there is one last gathering on the night before everyone flies back home. Participants dig into a traditional lobster dinner. There are skits, there are speeches, there are awards and there are tears.
Through more than four decades, Camp Wigwam has created hundreds of moments just like that, fostering a place of belonging and fun in the midst of hard-fought milestones. More than just another summer rite of passage, participants have an amazing, unique camping experience. NSSRA and Camp Wigwam have truly built a family, and each participant has their own place in that family.
“The Camp Wigwam/ Maine Experience has become an important part of the life of every participant and every staff who have visited the shores of Bear Lake,” said Strauss. “There is a feeling when you walk through the gate, and when you put your sleeping bag on your bed, that this is your camp, your home. And when you leave, you’re only thinking about one thing: when can I get back?”