They’re told they’re survivors, not victims. And for one special week every June, they aren’t different. The kids don’t talk much about the individual tragedies that bring them together because their focus is on fun. Champ Camp, a special summer camp for burn-injured children, hosted by the Alisa Ann Ruch Burn Foundation, is a high point of the summer for many of the 200 children that attend annually.
“Camp helped me a lot because I get away from the teasing and the people that run away from me at home,” says 10-year old Maudean from Corning, CA, her face a patchwork of scars.
For some of the children, Champ Camp is the only respite from the weeks of reconstructive surgery they will receive all summer long to help their scarred skin adapt to their growing bodies. Free to all the children who attend, the camp is staffed by firefighters, adult burn survivors, medical professionals and many others who create a safe haven and a vacation from stares and questions.
Firefighters are volunteers for the Alisa Ann Ruch Burn Foundation at Champ Camp and throughout the year. “It’s important for them because it brings their job full circle. It allows them to be a part of the healing process, to make a difference after the fire is extinguished,” said Lisa Powell, the foundation’s executive director.
Campers enjoy a regular summer camp experience that includes horseback riding, go-carts, fishing, and arts and crafts. The emphasis is not on the burns and no child is asked to discuss the nature of his or her injuries; however, if a child wants to talk, the counselors are prepared to listen.
“You see this constant growth,” said Captain Matt Da Cunha,of the Santa Rosa Fire Department, who is one of many firefighters who spend vacation time volunteering at the camp. He believes he gets as much as he gives. “It grounds me. These kids have been through so much – and this experience gives them so much love, it’s incredible.”
Fingerless hands make beaded bracelets, an armless child shoots a bull’s-eye with a BB gun by using toes, and scarred cheeks wear makeup for the end-of-the-week dance. Each day is filled with small accomplishments and leaps of self-esteem.
According to Firefighter Wendy Dom-ster, also of the Santa Clara Fire Department, helping children regain a sense of fun and confidence can alleviate some of a firefighter’s devastation in seeing a badly burn-injured child on the scene.
“We work all year with such tragedy, we see these kids at the worst,” Domster said. “But then we see them at camp, playing, smiling and feeling like other kids. It makes it all worthwhile.”
Adds Powell, “Our volunteers are the heart and soul of Champ Camp. They get rigorous training in putting the kids’ needs first and encouraging them to try new things.”
Firefighters are highly represented in these ranks, making up about one-third of all volunteers at the camp and in the foundation’s many other programs throughout the year. The kids leave camp knowing there is a special place where they are not made to feel different and people they had never met before truly care. That place is Champ Camp.
More information about the Alisa Ann Ruch Burn Foundation, Champ Camp and other survivor programs the foundation offers year-round, as well as a list of burn camps, is available by calling 800-755-BURN or visiting www.aarbf.org.