Many happy campers have Ed Stracke to thank for their memories of summer and winter fun. Stracke stepped down January 1 as president and chief executive officer of True Friends, which provides camping and outdoor experiences for Minnesotans with disabilities. He has spent more than 33 years leading the organization.
Stracke’s career with people with disabilities, which began when he was a young man in Iowa, has paralleled sweeping changes in camping and outdoor recreation. It’s work he has enjoyed thoroughly. Now he is ready for a change.
“I’ll still be with True Friends, but in more of a fundraising and ambassador role,” Stracke said. The change will also give him more time with family. “I’ve had a great career, but it’s time to retire.”
“Guided by his dedication and unwavering support of individuals with disabilities, True Friends has flourished under his leadership,” said True Friends Board of Directors Chair John Bredemus. “We are grateful and humbled by Ed’s commitment over the years.”
True Friends is a nonprofit agency providing life-changing experiences that enhance independence and self-esteem for children and adults with disabilities. True Friends’ programs include camp, respite, therapeutic horseback riding, conference and retreat, travel and team building. The programs serve more than 25,000 people each year.
Stracke said he never imagined himself having such a career. He grew up in the Harlan, Iowa area. He was part of a farming family, one of eight children. After high school he graduated from Iowa State University with a degree in recreation and leisure services.
His interests in working with camps and people with disabilities began with a job at Camp Sunnyside. The Des Moines area camp is affiliated with Easter Seals Iowa, the largest and oldest special needs camping center in that state. Working there with campers there set the stage for Stracke’s career. He still has fond memories of young people he worked with.
Seeing the positive experience camp was for children with disabilities was an inspiration, Stracke said. “You saw that the young people had the same opportunities to go camp, to have fun experiences and to make lifelong friends.” His career took him to Minnesota. In 1984 he began working at Friendship Ventures, which was then affiliated with Arc of Minnesota. Camp Friendship began in 1964 as a resort near Annandale, organized by parents of children with disabilities.
By January 1986 Stracke was leading Friendship Ventures, after the camp became a separate nonprofit organization. He had a vision to expand the organization, to offer respite services, travel opportunities, conference and retreat experiences, and team building opportunities. Expanding beyond summer and winter camping paid off. Looking back, he said it was important for Friendship Ventures to diversity.
“Camping experiences are important but we couldn’t maintain the camps if we didn’t grow as an organization,” Stracke said.
Camp Eden Wood was acquired by Friendship Ventures in 1995. That facility was established in 1925 as the Glen Lake Children’s Camp, originally serving as a summer haven for children with tuberculosis. In the late 1950s, Arc of Hennepin County operated the site as Camp Indian Chief for people with developmental disabilities.
In 2005, Camp New Hope, near McGregor, merged into Friendship Ventures. The camp was originally established in 1968 by four Cambridge State Hospital doctors who saw a need to get patients with disabilities out of the hospital. This camp is no longer being used and the property is being put up for sale.
In 2012 Stracke led Friendship Ventures through the acquisition of Camp Courage in Maple Lake and Camp Courage North at Lake George near Bemidji. Those camps had been operated by Courage Center for many years. Camp Courage was established in 1955 to serve individuals with physical disabilities. Camp Courage North, near Itasca State Park, was established in 1971-72.
The expanded organization was called Camps of Courage and Friendship before the True Friends name was chosen.
True Friends’ trajectory of growth under Stracke’s leadership goes against the trends too many other camps have faced. Over the past few decades several Minnesota groups have closed or scaled back camp programs. The Salvation Army, Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts and faith-based groups have shut down camps. Dwindling participation and finances
have doomed some once-popular camps. Other camps around the Twin Cities were swallowed up by suburban sprawl. In summer 2017 it was announced the Camp Winnebago near Caledonia was shutting down, ending 50 years’ service to children with disabilities.
Stracke said it takes a strong organization, dedicated staff and board members, and committed supporters to keep camp programs viable. It also takes a willingness to adapt to trends and think of new offerings to keep people coming back.
One example Stracke cited is the wheelchair-accessible challenge course added at the Maple Lake camp two years ago. It includes a giant swing, zip line and a ropes circuit. Expanding what campers can experience is vital to True friends’ success.
So too are its dedicated workers. “We’re fortunate that we’ve had so many good people over the years,” he said.
Learn more about True Friends at www.truefriends.org