Rotherham: Inside a Very Special Summer Camp for Young Burn Survivors — Where Every Kid Gets to Be a Kid for at Least One Week a Year

Andrew J. Rotherham

Keezletown, Virginia

A raptor expert from the U.S. Forest Service is explaining to a group of summer campers how the birds she cares for are stronger than their wild counterparts because of various injuries they have overcome. It’s a subtle point that might sail over the heads of a lot of people, especially while they are focused on a majestic bald eagle perched on her arm just 10 feet away — so close it blows their hair back when it moves its powerful wings.

Yet these kids get it immediately.

That’s because all of them, and some of their counselors, are burn survivors. Their burns range from 1 percent to more than 80 percent of their bodies, and many have endured unimaginable trauma. Some are burned because of accidents, others because of deliberate acts of malice and abuse. Yet many say that although their burns are a challenge, the experience has made them better, more empathetic, fuller people.

Earlier this month, The 74 Senior Editor Emmeline Zhao and I visited the Mid-Atlantic Burn Camp, a summer camp for burn survivors that just celebrated its 30th anniversary. It was a special experience to be let into this community — and especially poignant for me, because one summer early in my career I did ropes course work and outdoor adventure programming for this camp.

WATCH: On scene at the Mid-Atlantic Burn Camp, an inspiring escape for young burn survivors

The Mid-Atlantic Burn Camp, one of a network of camps for burn survivors around the United States and abroad, exists to give children with severe and, in some cases, disfiguring injuries a place to spend a week engaging in some traditional summer fun. They do arts and crafts, go swimming and canoeing, ride horses, and participate in adventure activities like rock climbing, caving, and high ropes courses. But it’s also a chance for them to spend time in a community of people who understand what it’s like to be a burn survivor in a way no one else can.

For these kids, even a routine trip to the store can bring stares, inappropriate comments, or awkward questions. A trip to the beach or the swimming pool can be especially uncomfortable. At Burn Camp, kids can be themselves, share their own jokes and codes, and not worry about social pressure, bullying, or other challenges they may face in daily life. Their conversations range from casually funny about their situation — “Yes, it’s only my second year, but give me a break, I didn’t get burned until I was 9” — to deeply profound connections about what happened to them or what they are going through.

The camp is tuition-free; support comes from fire departments, firefighters unions, other donations, and the tireless work of directors Linda French and Tonas Kalil, who founded the camp in 1989 while working as physical therapists.

The counselors are an amazing group of people from a variety of walks of life: Some are professional firefighters, paramedics, nurses, and people involved with physical therapy and other rehabilitative activities. Others are marine engineers, entrepreneurs, college students, and musicians drawn by the mission and meaningful work. This year, four former campers worked as counselors as well. All are united by a willingness to volunteer nine days on site — a week of camp, plus pre-service work — and additional time preparing throughout the year.

It’s not an easy job, though. The days are long, the weather is unpredictable, and the experience is emotional and affecting. Kalil describes his interview process as telling applicants all the reasons they wouldn’t want to work there, and then moving forward with the ones who persist. But those who do sign on say the week at camp gives them a richer appreciation for life, for what people can do and what’s inside them, and for the vagaries of fortune.

Summer Camp Photo Diary: Our Unforgettable Visit to the Shenandoah Valley:

The diverse staff is bound by a shared desire to do whatever it takes to give these kids a camp experience. Special harnesses are rigged up so children who can’t use their arms or are missing fingers can go rock climbing or ride a zip line. One girl who was missing her arms and legs went hang gliding a few years ago in a custom rig put together by some enterprising firefighters.

Children who are burn survivors often need ongoing surgery to release their skin as they get older, because scar tissue doesn’t grow like other skin, so even relatively small burns can be serious, ongoing, life-altering issues. Many of the campers have spent months and even years living in hospital burn wards, and some of them need constant medical attention while they are at camp — one camper injured in a house fire used a ventilator to sleep and needed a breathing tube cleaned during the day.

French and Kalil make sure the resources are in place so everyone can have the summer camp experience that a lot of kids take for granted. The camp also provides campers with books, gathered through donations from publishers and others. The camp’s unofficial librarian, Julia Cardozo, a Maryland prosecutor in her regular job, makes sure the kids take home as many books as they can carry. For some, it augments a library they already have at home; for others, they are the only books they own.

The books are a physical token of what ultimately makes this camp and its community so special. What the kids — and the adults — take from the week at burn camp, they carry with them the other 51 weeks of the year.

Help fund stories like this. Donate now!

Republish This Article

We want our stories to be shared as widely as possible — for free.

Please view The 74's republishing terms.

On The 74 Today