Strength in Diversity

How River Way Ranch Camp has successfully developed a diverse and well-rounded slate of camp and conference offerings.

Like a river, River Way Ranch Camp has run its course here and there over varying terrain. The camp, like most rivers, does not meander aimlessly, but with purpose.

In its 39 years of operation River Way has gone through various phases and has offered, and still offers, a number of unique programs. Through those years, River Way has used its experience with its experiments as an effective foundation to develop a strikingly successful summer camp, including program opportunities for special groups.

For example, River Way has hosted a camp session in conjunction with the California Burn Foundation for burn survivors and firefighters for 21 years. This specialty camp, which runs separately from River Way’s traditional camp program, conference programs and other specialty programs, was the original impetus for building a ropes course before ropes courses were ubiquitous in children’s camping.

“Some firefighters suggested that we get the children into a harness and raise them onto a ropes course. This allowed the campers to feel an amazing sense of accomplishment, resulting in increased self-confidence. The benefits were great and that is what made me really push with our board of directors to plant the permanent ropes course challenge here,” says Nancy Oken Nighbert.

Here to There

In 1967, Nighbert’s father, Stan Oken, leased a site near Sequoia National Park called River Way Ranch. Oken partnered with two fellow coaches with the purpose of creating a traditional children’s summer camp.

Since development possibilities were limited on that site, Oken found the perfect spot on the other side of Sequoia at Wonder Valley. Wonder Valley was being operated as a guest ranch so there was a lot of work to be done to convert it into a workable traditional camp.

During this transition, Nighbert began working at the camp. And perhaps the most “typical” part of this story is that Nighbert was previously a camper, a CIT, and headed up various departments before becoming a second-generation staff person and eventually an owner.

In 1972, River Way partnered with Cathy Rigby, who was fresh from Olympic gymnast stardom, and signed her to run a gymnastics camp. Nighbert says they first approached Rigby’s manager, who gave an unequivocal “no” to the proposition. But when they spoke with Rigby directly she was eager to sign on since one of her dreams was to run her own gymnastics camp.

“We ran double meals and finagled things so that we could run River Way’s full program in conjunction with the Rigby Gym Camp. We brought in big teepees, so we were pretty rustic at first,” recalls Nighbert.

The gymnastics camp brought increased media attention and hundreds of extra campers to spread the word about the benefits of the summer camp experience. It would also provide the invaluable experience of running an additional program.

Since that time, River Way has added a plethora of additional camp programs, plus conference- and tourism-type activities. The key to this diversity, says Nighbert, was in developing strong markets while maximizing the camp’s strengths.

The Oken-Nighbert family has delivered educational programs, which increase a child’s self-worth and confidence, using the various camp activities as tools to facilitate such learning.

In addition to the resort and conference center component — called Wonder Valley Resort & Conference Center, which runs from September to June — River Way also runs the previously-mentioned specialty burn-victims camp, a camp for children with muscular dystrophy, sixth grade outdoor education programs, a reunification camp for foster children and their biological siblings (Camp to Belong) and a family camp.

The family camp began specifically for University of Southern California alumni and their families. After 20 years of partnership, USC decided to offer family camp on its own site and River Way continued the family camp concept with Wonder Valley Family Camp.

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