As teenage girls and I walked into a large community room for the “Wig Out” party, a colorful, crazy wig-themed dance party, we could hear a little voice.
Some of the girls dispersed and joined their friends, and several of us looked around to find out where the voice was coming from. Front and center was a six or seven-year-old boy holding a microphone under his right arm and singing karaoke to Bruno Mars’ “Grenade.”
His left arm was amputated below the shoulder and his right arm amputated above the elbow.
Although his burn injuries robbed him of his upper extremities, no injury or trauma had taken his courage and enthusiasm to sing in front of a large group that evening.
My world stopped at that moment as I witnessed this brave and playful child sing his heart out.
This is the epitome of Camp Beyond the Scars, an annual summer camp put together by The Burn Institute , a nonprofit organization devoted to reducing the number of burn injuries and deaths in San Diego, Riverside, Imperial and San Bernardino Counties.
They work to build up children and young adult victims of burn injuries so they have the tools, courage and skills to handle their forever changed lives.
I got involved because as a Firefighter/Paramedic with the Imperial Beach Fire Department, we participate in several fundraising events each year for the Burn Institute, like the Boot Drive and the Firefighter Demolition Derby at the San Diego County Fair.
Although firefighters locally and nationally work diligently to raise money and volunteer, I wanted to experience first hand, what we were raising money for. I was told all I would have to provide were time, energy, supervision and laughter to help with camp.
This was my first time as a Camp Beyond the Scars Counselor.
I was told that it would be an amazing, life changing, fun and exhausting time and every word turned out to be exactly my experience. I was one of the five counselors for eleven teenage girls and more than 70 campers, ages five to 17, and over 20 volunteer support staff.
Summer camp was held at Camp Cuyamaca, from July 17-22. In just one short week, I had the opportunity to witness and be a part of numerous miracles.
Kids will be kids, and they certainly were at camp.
There were several group activities organized each day, including a rock climbing station, horse back riding, outdoor laser tag, arts and crafts, peer support sessions, swimming, a day at Mission Bay, camp fire singing, nature walks and an obstacle course with a simulated over-sized car wash (fun!).
During one of the swimming rotations, a friend pushed a young teenage boy, who didn’t know how to swim, into the pool. The Burn Institute’s volunteer lifeguard immediately pulled him out, unharmed. Later that day, the brave burn survivor publically thanked his friend for pushing him in, thanked the lifeguards for their help and requested, time permitting, that the lifeguards teach him how to swim.
Time was set aside every day for him to receive swim lessons and with the help and encouragement from the group, he was swimming by the end of the week. He started camp with a mild fear of water because he didn’t know how to swim and through the support and resources provided by the Burn Institute’s summer camp, he conquered his fear and left with a new skill.
The campers developed new talents and shared their experiences and abilities with new and old friends that week. As I was with the teenage girls, we played around with lip gloss, got our hair braided, talked about Justin Bieber and listened to a few girls sing or read books while we prepared for the next activity.
During the arts and crafts station, the girls were able to decorate plastic rings. One of the girls had scar tissue on both of her hands from her burns and the rings didn’t fit. She participated anyway and ended up giving me the beautifully decorated beaded rings. I honestly don’t know who was happier, me for her thoughtfulness or her from me being so grateful. I told her I’d remember her smiles and warm hugs every time I looked at those rings and that I would be wearing them the first day of camp next year, whether they fit the camping attire or not!
I had the opportunity to witness the children be children, regardless of how their bodies, skin and lives were devastated. I saw how brave, silly, fun and enthusiastic everybody was with each other, and I now know how camp and assistance from the Burn Institute helped facilitate that experience. I taught the teenage girls how to paint flowers on their toenails, and they showed me a refreshing outlook and inspiration to life. Throughout the week, I didn’t see scar tissue or defeat. I saw happy eyes, growing personalities and giggling smiles.
One of the first accomplishments of The Burn Institute, founded in 1972, was to help establish the area’s first and only Regional Burn Center.
Each year, the Burn Institute reaches thousands of children and adults by providing resources for lifesaving fire and burn prevention education, funding treatment and rehabilitation not covered by medical insurance and conducting burn survivor support programs that help out burn survivors and their families with the emotional, psychological, profound life-changes from their injuries.
For more information about Camp Beyond the Scars and the Burn Institute, visit burninstitute.org.
Correction: The original version of this article mentioned Kids News Day as a fundraiser for the Burn Institute, but it is infact a fundraiser for Rady Children's Hospital-San Diego.