Fifth graders from three Milwaukee-area schools are building wheelchair-accessible experiences at Upham Woods Outdoor Learning Center

Upham Woods wheelchair-accessible boardwalk project

Contact: Toby Grabs, or 608-254-6461

Going to camp is an important part of growing up—singing campfire songs, sharing a cabin and exploring the outdoors with classmates and friends can be a formative experience. But for young people who use wheelchairs and other mobility devices, the camp experience might not feel complete.  Groups from three Milwaukee-area elementary schools are working to change that. Fifth-grade classes from Rawson Elementary, E.W. Luther Elementary and County Line Elementary are pitching in to build a wheelchair-accessible boardwalk and floating fishing dock at UW-Extension’s Upham Woods Outdoor Learning Center in Wisconsin Dells so that friends, classmates and other camp attendees who rely on mobility devices can learn to fish on the beautiful Wisconsin River while enjoying the splendor of the Wisconsin Dells alongside their peers. The group from Rawson Elementary will kick the project off for the year on May 15th and the classes from E.W. Luther and County Line schools will come to Upham Woods in October to build their portions.

More than 400 students will contribute to the dock project from start to finish, according to Upham Woods Interim Director Toby Grabs. “Each group brings about 50-100 fifth graders, and five groups from the three different schools have already contributed,” Grabs says. “When the group from Rawson comes on May 15, they will begin the third year of work on the boardwalk and dock.”

The wheelchair boardwalk will measure more than 100 feet when finished, and each group can complete one or two ten-foot sections per visit. Once the boardwalk is finished, more than 9,000 annual visitors to Upham Woods will have increased access to the Wisconsin River and important camp activities. According to Grabs, the school groups are providing about 99 percent of the supplies and 100 percent of the labor to complete the boardwalk.

The project got started after Rawson Elementary School received a grant to participate in an erosion abatement program. The grant brought the school to Upham Woods, where the students researched erosion problem areas and constructed a stairway leading to a challenge course in the woods. “The experience was so positive for everybody, including us at Upham, that they’ve been coming back every spring,” says Grabs. “They even spread the word to other schools, and now two more schools from the Milwaukee Metro area come here to do service projects.”

Rawson Elementary School Principal Colin Jacobs says that working with Upham Woods has been a valuable experience for the students at his school. “The partnership Rawson School has with Upham Woods has been a great benefit to our students,” he says. “They learn a great deal and work hard in a team setting. The boardwalk project showcases the character traits of the South Milwaukee School District’s character education program.  The projects are built to last and help many and the memories last a lifetime.”

Cathy Schultz, principal of County Line Elementary School, agrees. “Completing this service project at Upham Woods is a memorable experience,” she says. “It teaches our students the importance of making a positive contribution to someone else’s experience at Upham Woods.”

The wheelchair-accessible boardwalk is just one of many projects to help make Upham Woods Outdoor Learning Center friendlier to patrons of varying abilities. “We’ve retrofitted some of our low challenge course elements so they are accessible and when adding new elements try to use accessible, universal design from the beginning,” Grabs says. “More importantly, our Capital Campaign has significant accessibility upgrades as a central theme. An elevator is planned for the Lodge upgrade, one of our cabins is slated to be made wheelchair accessible, the new bathhouse will be wheelchair accessible and a wheelchair-accessible pathway to cabin hill is also part of the Capital Campaign.”

To learn more about the Upham Woods wheelchair accessible boardwalk fishing dock project, contact Toby Grabs, interim director, at Upham Woods, 608-254-6461. More information on the Upham Woods Outdoor Learning Center is available here:


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