Tawana White, 13, was severely burned at age 5 when her neighbors threw alcohol on a lit barbecue grill. The grill exploded and debris fell on her, causing third-degree burns on her face, chest and arms.
"I can't remember it," the soft-spoken girl says of that awful day.
She does, however, have to live with the scars that are daily reminders of the accident.
Seven people collected money so White, a Deerfield Beach resident, could buy a new outfit, have her hair styled and take spending money on a week's stay at the eighth annual Fire Fighters National Children's Burn Camp.
Donors included Carol Ann Stankovitz, 49, of Boca Raton, camp personnel director for the Children's Burn Camp of Florida, and Boca Raton firefighter Michelle Murphy, 46, who was White's counselor. Murphy accompanied her on the all-expenses paid trip to Washington, D.C., from Sept. 27 through Oct. 2. The camp is for teens 13 to 15 who have endured severe burns.
The International Association of Fire Fighters runs the camp and pays all the expenses, which amount to more than $400,000. To help support the camp financially, the Boca Raton Fire Department has a three-day softball tournament in the spring.
"It was Tawana's first time out of the state, and it was her first time on an airplane and she was petrified," Murphy said. "Finally, we did get her to move over to a window and look out."
After landing at Reagan National Airport, White and Murphy met other campers and hopped on buses for their ride to the 4-H Camp in Chevy Chase, Md. The first evening everyone became acquainted.
"Children are brought together, so they know they aren't the only ones. The more kids open up, the more they get other kids to open up," Murphy said.
The children got the VIP treatment.
"The children get to see a Washington that few tourists see. A lot of doors are opened for them," said George Burke, assistant to the president of the International Association of Fire Fighters.
One event was a tour of the White House and Congress, and a touching moment when one of the campers placed a wreath on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Another highlight of the stay was a cookout prepared by the firefighters at the Arlington, Va., fire station. The air-rescue team and firefighters from the airport also joined them. Every night before bed, the children had a Circle of Peace where oneness and unity were stressed.
"I liked the [Smithsonian National] Air and Space Museum best. I got to fly a simulated plane and I got to be a gunner and the pilot," White said.
Before a child is eligible to attend the national burn camp, he or she must first attend a state burn camp. Florida has three, and children from South Florida go to the Elks Camp in Umatilla, an all expenses-paid camp for children ages 6 though 16. Donations support the camp, which costs $250 per camper for the weekend.
The state burn camp is filled with typical camp activities such as swimming and archery. However, there are nurses and physical therapists there because some children are still being treated for burns. When children are too old to attend camp, they often return to help new campers.
"It is an honor to be chosen for the National Burn Camp, and Tawana was chosen because she was the one who would benefit the most from going," Stankovitz said.
To be a counselor and accompany a child to the burn camp, the individual must be a firefighter and a member in good standing of the International Fire Fighter's Union.
Forging a one-on-one relationship between the counselor and the camper is another of the camp's goals. The counselors get together every afternoon to share ideas that they have found helpful while working at the state burn camps.
Burned adults are also welcome to attend camp. Stankovitz recalls a time that a 40-year-old woman showed up who had never worn shorts before because of her scars.
"She saw the kids, and she wore her shorts and for the first time in her life wore a bathing suit," Stankovitz said.
Despite the adversity White has had to overcome, her advice to other burn victims is, "Don't be mad because you were burned. Just be happy and be yourself."
"Everyone has heard about Sept. 11 and how the firefighters were the heroes. These kids are the firefighters' heroes," Murphy said.