Camps for burn survivors let kids shake off the stares
Amira Williams, 9, squeals as a 3-month-old puppy named Calvin licks her hand. The colorful beads in what remains of her hair clink across the scars on her face as she squirms away from the puppy's ticklish nips.
Amira is what burn specialists call "a true 95 percenter," which means she was burned across 95% of her body. She spent almost two years in the hospital and in rehab fighting for her life.
For Amira, it was a Baltimore house fire. For Tania Mendez, 7, a waitress spilled scalding soup down her side at a Chinese restaurant. For Maybeline Vidal-Berrios, 13, the scars across her face, down her arm and on her leg were caused by a searing pan of oil.
Once a year, burn survivors like these and hundreds of others across the country come to a place where no one stares, the scars don't matter and kids can just be kids -- at a camp that is exclusive to burn survivors.
The rural camp that Amira is attending, called the Mid-Atlantic Burn Camp, is about 50 miles northwest of Charlottesville, Va. There are dozens like it around the U.S. that work to provide relief for young burn survivors. Some focus on building life skills and teaching campers how to combat bullying while others just focus on fun.
With rope courses, horseback riding, crafts, archery, cooking, singing and a pool, the Mid-Atlantic camp is just like any other summer camp. But here, all of the campers have been treated for burn injuries severe enough to leave scarring or require skin grafts.
For many campers, the burns have caused damage beyond their skin, to tendons, nerves, muscles and bone.
Linda French and Tonas Kalil, former physical therapists at the Baltimore Regional Burn Center at Johns Hopkins, started Mid-Atlantic Burn Camp to help kids deal with the trauma of their burn injuries.
"We got really good in the '80s at saving people's lives," French says, "but once we save them, how do you get them back out into society? How do you get society to accept them? How do you get people not to stare, not to make fun of them?"
For the 45 others sitting around the tables for lunch at Mid-Atlantic Burn Camp, the stories include everything from boiling water and car accidents to lightning bolts and child abuse.
Those with irreversible burn scars get repeatedly taunted elsewhere for something they will never be able to change: their own skin.
"These kids have a visual defect now that people don't understand unless you have it yourself," says Laurie Schueler, spokeswoman for Akron Children's Hospital, which hosts a burn camp. "I remember hearing one kid say how refreshing it was to be able to put on a bathing suit and not have to tell everyone what happened to them. Just to go and swim and not have to relive their accident."
Now, more than 50 burn camps for kids exist across the country, many at no charge to burn survivors or their families. Among them:
Shriners Hospital for Children in Cincinnati hosts Camp Ytiliba, which is designed to offer burn survivors a chance to go to summer camp. The camp staff consists of hospital social workers, nurses, therapists and teachers.
Arizona Children's Burn Camp, "Camp Courage," has up to 100 kids for a full week of camp every summer.
Akron Children's Hospital in Ohio hosts a camp for burn survivors ages 7-17. This year, 17 kids attended. Activities include swimming, field trips and Fire Truck Day.
The Hoosier Burn Camp in Indiana hosts 75 children ages 8-18.
"They are behind academically, they've lost social development with their peers, and they have physical challenges that can be paralyzing to the child and the family," says Mark Koopman, executive director of the Hoosier Burn Camp. "We want to allow them to become whole again."
Counselors say the camps are all about making kids feel good about themselves.
"They are all still kids," says Mid-Atlantic Burn Camp counselor Julie Cassidy-Rosine. "They want to be loved and taken care of."
Maybeline, the 13-year-old scarred by oil, has been coming to camp for six years and doesn't plan to stop until she hits the maximum age of 17. Then she wants to become a counselor.
"Burn camp is a place you can be yourself without people staring at you," she says. "At the mall with my friends, there is a lot of staring. Sometimes you feel like an outcast, but here you don't."
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