Teens find salve for soul at International Burn Camp

September 27, 2013

One teen was burned as a 7-year-old in a bathtub by his adoptive mother for wetting his pants. Another boy’s brother lit a napkin in a parked car, causing it to burst into flames. A girl pulled on a portable fryer’s electric cord.

Each child tells a story that begins horrifically — and ends here, with hope and healing in Anne Arundel County on the Chesapeake Bay.

They arrived a week ago at Wabanna Camp and Conference Center in Mayo, 44 children from all over the country and Canada selected to attend the International Burn Camp, an annual event in its 18th year. It is sponsored by the International Association of Fire Fighters.

Many of the youths had never been on a plane. Or laid eyes on the White House, as they did during a visit Monday. Or worn shorts out in the open.

Each had been nominated by their local burn camp back home, institutions typically run by hospitals or volunteer fire companies that help children scarred by fire deal with physical and emotional wounds. And most, as they toured the sights and museums around the Mall during the visit to the capital, acted less like victims than tourists with really cool scars.

Free from stares and whispers, young burn survivors head to the rural woods of Virginia for a week to learn life skills, how to combat bullying, and to just have fun at the Mid-Atlantic Burn Camp. (The Washington Post)

For them, selection by the International Burn Camp was like winning the lottery.

“It’s like opening the chocolate bar and getting the golden ticket,” said Keenan Chandler, 15, of New Brunswick in Canada.

But for many, even here, anxiety is a constant companion.

“I feel so self-conscious about myself, and a lot of people make fun,” said Aaliyah Wagley of Bryant, Ark., who wore shorts, black sneakers and sunglasses at a camp carnival.

She was 18 months old when she and her older brother were burned in a house fire. Now a ninth-grader, she said something as simple as taking a picture, hanging out with friends or even asking a boy out is a struggle. “I’ve gotten better,” she said. “Going to camp every year and hearing people’s stories inspires me.”

She paused, then added: “My camp is my family.”

During the week, she and her fellow campers made friends from many Zip codes.

As they arrived, the teens were quiet and reserved.

Phillip Poole Jr., a 13-year-old from Lebanon, Ind., stood back that first night, more interested in watching others than eating dinner. He was burned by his adoptive mother at age 7 and now lives in a group home.

In between the occasional joke, he munched on Doritos and talked of seeing whether the Lincoln Memorial is really made of marble. He was still feeling his way toward some kind of comfort zone.

By Monday, during the tour of downtown D.C., he was chasing another camper and telling people about his dream to one day get his driver’s license.

It’s the confidence that campers say they take home with them.

“You just feel more at home — like you can be yourself,” Jordan Hyde, 16, of Marlborough, Conn., said just before loading up a snow cone with every single flavor available — even pineapple and blueberry. “Basically, you can do whatever you like here, and it’s like a myth buster.”

Research says that support from family and peers helps young burn survivors navigate an already difficult time. Renee DeBoard-Lucas, a psychologist who works with the burn team at Johns Hopkins Children’s Center, said going to camp can provide children with “a little positive peer pressure.”

“Some kids do very well after a burn, and some kids have a hard time,” she said. “I think it can set a nice example to see kids who are having an easier time and inspire [others] to wear shorts or do an activity they were apprehensive about.”

It’s like street cred, said Michael W. Yogman, a Massachusetts pediatrician who is part of a committee that examines mental health and family stress at the American Academy of Pediatrics. “It’s one thing when a doctor or psychologist tells you something,” he said. “But when a peer who has been through it shares their experience, there’s a credibility in that.”

The teens said the staff even helped them find ways to love their scars.

Staff member Liz Hess, 31, a clinical social worker, is well suited to do that; she’s a burn survivor herself. “We can’t change what’s happened to them, but we can give them skills and opportunities that will outweigh a lot of the negative stuff they’ve gone through,” said Hess, of Allentown, Pa., who has worked with the camp for three years. “And because of the adversity they faced, these kids will have more compassion and resilience than some adults will ever have.”

Darkness fell on the tiny camp Thursday evening like a blanket, ending a day of carnival rides, funnel cake and swimming in the Chesapeake.

Just before a surprise fireworks display, campers and counselors gathered near the dock to share memories from the week before they head home Saturday. One counselor cited a phrase Logan Monk, 15, wrote on a bag: “Scars are tattoos with better stories.”

Monk, of Goochland, Va., was burned by hot water as a toddler. He explained his thinking in a way that also seemed to describe the camp’s raison d’etre.

“A tattoo is something you get on your skin because it means something to you. A scar you get because something happened,” he said. “It’s a better story — it isn’t something you can control, but you get through it and you handle it. And you can pass that along to other people.”

Victoria St. Martin covers breaking news and Prince William County for The Post's Local desk.
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