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A 'home away from home' for child burn survivors

burn camp 2.jpeg
Randi B. Hagi
Campers sing together with lyric books after lunch.

Read the original article on WMRA's website.

The sounds of kids singing and pounding on tables rang out across the Brethren Woods Camp in Keezletown in early August, where counselors passed out lyric books with numbered pages, so kids could call out a request for their favorite camp 'hymn' — such as "Proud Mary" and "Leaving on a Jet Plane."

Ending each meal in song is one of the many traditions honored each year at the Mid-Atlantic Burn Camp, founded in 1992 by physical therapists working at the Baltimore Regional Burn Center. The camp is specifically designed for children who have experienced burn injuries, so they can safely enjoy the outdoors with peers of shared experiences, where scars are the norm.

"With a child that is a burn survivor, there's often a lot of teasing, and having the community of everyone here has the same thing that you would normally get teased by; they have the support and the presence to be able to ... if they're going into the pool, take their shirt off and not swim with a T-shirt on," said Dylan Dunne.

Dunne, who is from Baltimore, has been a counselor at the Rockbridge County summer camp for more than 15 years. He often chaperones the bus that starts in Eastern Pennsylvania and picks up kids along its way to camp.

He has never seen a group of adolescents come together and support each other the way he's seen them do at camp.

"These kids are talking to their peers in this specific peer group, [where] they are finding solace and welcome arms."

A lot of this summer camp experience is like any other — with swimming, canoeing, and arts and crafts. There's also specific care taken in teaching cooking classes and building campfires, so the kids can gain confidence in settings that might bring up their trauma.

Thirteen-year-olds Jacob, from Dover, Pennsylvania; and Rodney, from Severna Park, Maryland, enjoyed horseback riding and beating an escape room.

Jacob said he likes the atmosphere at the camp: "I feel like I can connect with a lot of people who have had similar things happen to them."

Rodney likes horseback riding and connecting with people at the camp.

"I feel like a lot of us ... it doesn't affect us as much as people might think. It's just something that we live with," Jacob said.

It was Visitors Day when WMRA stopped by, when the camp opens up to firefighters, flight paramedics and other guests.

Matt Tobia is the chief of the Harrisonburg Fire Department, who said the Harrisonburg drone team came to visit.

"Our drone team is focused on search and rescue missions, as well as providing situational awareness on fires, but today, the kids got to fly drones and these are things that these kids would never get the chance to do," Tobia said.

Fire department personnel also serve as counselors and help fundraise for the organization, so every child can attend the camp for free.

Tobia said that firefighters encounter people when they're having the "very worst day of their life" — while working, they see burn victims or individuals with severe burns and transport them to the hospital.

Once there, he said, they don't know what happens to those victims. That takes a toll on them emotionally, mentally and physically.

"When firefighters get to see kids who are survivors, who are resilient, who are able to recover from their burn injuries — and know that they can have a role in saving that child's life and then helping that child find the new normal that comes after a burn injury," he said. "It's immensely satisfying."

That day, the kids also got to sit in a medical evacuation helicopter — on the ground — and talk to the paramedics who pilot it, including Wynn Locher.

"Generally, we're going to go to UVA: It's our closest Level One trauma center that also handles people who are having a heart attack or a stroke," Locher said. "If someone's burned, then they'll go to VCU — that's our closest burn center. If we can't get into Richmond for some reason, then we're going to go to the burn unit at the D.C. children's hospital."

The bonds forged here are strong. According to one long-standing counselor, once a camper starts attending they're "ours," she said. Even if the camper moves out of the region, the camp will fly them out each summer to keep them in the fold.

Aaliyah, a 15-year-old from Baltimore, talked about the bonds she's formed at camp while crocheting: "Everyone's so nice here. [It's] like home away from home, you know?"

Tobia recounted one of the most poignant moments he's had in the more than 20 years he's helped with the camp.

"One day, one of our science teachers pulled out a geode. Now, a geode as a closed sphere is ugly. It's a rock," he said. "But when you cut a geode in half, slice it open and you look on the inside, it is full of the most beautiful crystals you can possibly imagine. It was a teaching moment where the kids understood and got to see that what's on the outside doesn't have to define them."