Camp for burn-injured children ending this week | TahoeDailyTribune.com

Camp for burn-injured children ending this week

William Ferchland

Dan Thrift/Tahoe Daily Tribune/ Chris Van Liew, 12, from Rocklin, pulls a crawdad from behind the dam at Fallen Leaf Lake on Tuesday. Van Liew and about 65 other kids attended the week-long Firefighter Kids Camp for Burn Injured Children at Camp Shelly Concord.

CAMP CONCORD – For some of the children, T-shirts and pants are enough to cover the scars.

But for others the burn damage is more noticeable: a missing ear, an amputated arm, a prosthetic leg.

Yet there are no second looks or stares at the Firefighters Kids Camp for burn-injured children, unless it’s to inspect a crawdad caught by a piece of raw bacon or watching someone scale a climbing wall.

Held at Camp Concord near Mount Tallac trailhead and wrapping up Saturday after a Friday night dance, the weeklong camp provides a safe haven for children and teenagers accustomed to keeping their guard up for fear of being ostracized. Or rejected. Or the hundreds of other words able to describe what happens to someone who might be different.

The majority of the staff are firefighters volunteering their time. Tony Davis and Joey Guardino are the co-directors of the camp and have been for the past seven of the nine years they have attended. Davis is an engineer with the fire department in Roseville. Guardino, also an engineer, works for the Elk Grove Fire Department.

The camp is part of the Firefighters Burn Institute in Sacramento. Sixty-two campers signed up this year, Guardino said.

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There are two requirements for camp eligibility. The youngsters must be at least 6 years old and have completed first grade. The oldest age group is 17-year-olds.

In addition, and most importantly, each camper must have received care in a burn treatment unit and/or hospital because of their injuries.

Amanda Fields, a 10-year-old from Las Vegas with light blonde hair and a passion for illusions, was burned in a motor home fire.

Robert Baldwin-Gray, an 11-year-old who described himself as a “mad foosball player,” had his legs scarred when he was dipped into a scalding bath by his mother’s boyfriend. He was 18 months old at the time.

Jack Sample, an 11-year-old from Costa Mesa, was wearing a rayon shirt during one Christmas. The shirt caught fire by a candle in the house.

“It was pretty scary,” he said.

Marysville resident Alyssa Macias, 13, was burned by an errant firework during a Fourth of July celebration.

“The amazing part about these kids is they’re so resilient,” Guardino said. “It’s amazing. To be honest with you it’s one of the reasons I have done this for so many years. It’s an education for the staff, also. I mean you really learn that with a lot of inner strength you can overcome just about anything and these kids are living proof of that.

“I think a lot of adults can benefit from how these kids look at life,” he added as he talked on a dirt trail headed toward a dam at Fallen Leaf Lake. The younger campers were crawdad fishing.

Only a stick, a string, a rock and a raw slab of bacon were needed for crawdad fishing. The group’s luck was good: a yellow bucket was halfway filled with the small freshwater lobsters. The plump ones would be kept and cooked for any camper requesting the shellfish.

Dean Adam Jackson Wantland joined camp nurse Kim Berggren on a narrow bridge overlooking the activity. A.J., as he likes to be called, caught a few crawdads but seemed bored.

“I don’t like seafood,” A.J., 10, said. He prefers pepperoni pizza with extra cheese and the rock-climbing wall, a favorite at the camp.

A few years ago A.J. was caught in a house fire, Berggren said. Burns were so deep that keloid scars developed. Keloid scars are red, thick and grow beyond the original wound.

As a result, A.J. wears a black mask with red trim, a mask similar to a professional wrestler wishing to hide his identity, and gloves and leg protectors.

The mask presses his skin down. When Berggren looked at his face and head one day without the mask she saw the scars were less elevated than the previous year. She said so to A.J.

“His face just lit up,” Berggren said at the mess hall, recalling how she teared up at his response.

“I had to turn away because I didn’t want him to see my reaction to his reaction,” she said.

As camp nurse, Berggren, a short, slim woman with a warm disposition fitting for a health professional, distributes medication and treats normal camp inflictions like skinned knees and splinters.

She was used to helping burn survivors at an early age since her father had wounds caused by fire during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in World War II. Skin not covered by his cotton T-shirt and shorts was destroyed.

He had 17 skin graft surgeries in which healthy skin is transplanted to replace damaged skin. He spent a year in the hospital. If his injuries happened at the present day, Berggren said, he would be hospitalized for about three or four weeks.

Years ago Berggren treated Oscar Barrera, a retired captain with the Stockton Fire Department who was injured when the second-story of a burning house he was in collapsed.

Two fellow firefighters were killed in the 1997 accident. It left Barrera severely scarred from third-degree burns on the right of his midsection, back and elbow. He was in the hospital for 40 days.

Campers look to Barrera, a camp counselor since 1998, as a mentor.

“I think I bring a different insight,” he said.

Bonds are forged at the beach when Barrera takes off his shirt, displaying his injury.

“You show them then they show you what they’ve got and they start asking, ‘Did they do this to you? Did they do that to you?’ So there’s a little connection there,” he said.

On the other end of Barrera’s bench was a tuckered child using his blanket and arms for a pillow on the table. His face was burnt by hot oil, Berggren said.

“You want to make something?” Barrera asked the sleepy child. After not getting a response Barrera let him keep napping. “OK, close your eyes.”

The camp also has a psychologist, William Huckaby. “Huck,” as he is affectionately known, is a clinical and developmental psychologist with the Sutter Gould Medical Foundation.

Huck specializes in traumatic accidents and developmental disabilities affecting youths.

His favorite mantra is the word “love” being spelled “s-a-f-e.”

“The goal, we hope, and I think we’re successful in establishing, is having a safe, great week of fun,” Huck said.

He spoke on the stretch of grass in front of the mess hall, sometimes shifting his sitting location to stay in the shade. The campers were no where to be seen; they were being entertained at the stage area by an animal expert.

Children and teenage burn survivors can carry a load of emotional distress, Huck said. Such injuries can bring post-tramautic stress disorder, anxiety, attention disorders, depression and respiratory problems. To keep down the dust, which would irritate sensitive lungs, the camp’s grounds are watered twice everyday, Huck said.

Discussion sessions occur daily. Called “raps,” such sessions deal with issues such as how to deal with stares or asking a person on a date.

Each year counselors are given a two-day training sessions before camp begins. Huck said one of his main responsibilities is assisting counselors.

On the subject of the co-directors, Davis and Guardino, Huck said the two are invaluable.

“Tony (Davis) and Joe (Guardino), they’re the heart and soul of this camp,” Huck said. “You can put ‘heart’ under one and ‘soul’ under the other.

“Tony and Joe are the magicians, the wizards,” Huck continued. “The counselors are the spells, and what happens up here is nothing less than that.”

The two don’t wear wizard caps but they do wear hats to make themselves noticeable. On Tuesday, Guardino wore a cheeseburger hat. On Wednesday night, during campfire skits, Davis wore a Santa Claus jester hat while Davis donned a similar, more colorful one with lights at the tips.

Davis, who helps plan the camp months ahead of the Aug. 7 opening, said simply he gets more than he puts in. One example is a burned child who attended the camp and made such an impression on Davis that the firefighter ended up adopting the child.

“The kids are the heart and soul of the camp,” Davis said.

– E-mail William Ferchland at wferchland@tahoedailytribune.com

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