If you ask 15-year-old Emma Kroll what she thinks of “burn camp,” her face lights up and she heaps praise on the weeklong event.
“I really look forward to seeing my friends there and having new experiences,” she said. “I’ve had opportunities at camp, like sailing, that I haven’t done before.”
Since age 7, the Janesville teen has attended the summer camp for burn-injured young people ages 7 to 17.
At Camp Timber-lee near East Troy, she and dozens of kids with life-changing burn injuries connect with others facing similar challenges.
“Everyone is burned,” Emma explained. “You can share your story about how it happened, but no one feels pressured to do it.”
Camp also is a place where children can forget about their burn injuries by going fishing, zip-lining or having pillow fights.
The 25th annual camp is Aug. 11-17 and is one of the biggest burn survivor support programs of the Professional Firefighters of Wisconsin Charitable Foundation.
Many individual and corporate donations make the camp free.
Emma calls other campers and counselors her “framily,” which she defines as friends who have become family.
The sophomore at Milton High School received third-degree burns on her arms and chest at age 4 while making applesauce.
Her mother, Jamie, is as enthusiastic as Emma about the camp.
“There’s not a single person related to burn camp who isn’t wonderful,” Jamie said. “It’s a place to heal. These kids are with people who look like them and understand how awful their injuries are.”
When Jamie comes on visitors day, she said it is impossible not to get emotional when she sees all the kids having fun.
In addition to the weeklong camp, a one-day Explorers program is offered for kids younger than 7 and any child not ready for overnight camp.
A Young Adult Leadership Program also is available for burn survivors ages 18 to 21.
Melissa Kersten said burn camp is all about giving young people hope and a network of support.
Kersten is chairwoman of the Burn Camp Steering Committee and an advanced practice nurse practitioner focused on burn care at Ascension Columbia St. Mary’s in Milwaukee.
She spends much of her day caring for people with burn injuries.
“Usually getting burned is one of the most tragic things that has happened to someone,” Kersten said. “We talk about the burns (at camp), but they are not the main focus. The main thing is to let survivors know they are not alone in their journey. To meet another survivor like them can mean a whole lot to another child or a teen.”
No one is told what to wear at camp, but the culture is to be comfortable in your own skin.
“Some children may be newer campers, are shier and unsure,” Kersten said. “They see other children their age and older. They see their scars, and they see that no one is staring at them. I’ve heard young people say, ‘No one stares at us here. They accept us for who we are.’”
Within the burn community, younger people refer to themselves as “burn thrivers” instead of survivors.
“They are doing more than survive,” Kersten said. “They are thriving. Obviously, we hope all our young people feel that way.”
From a medical standpoint, a burn patient has to go through dressing changes, sometimes two or three times a day.
“For children, it is difficult for them to understand why there is so much pain,” Kersten said. “It is not an easy thing for an adult or a child to go through.”
Some young adults, who are members of the camp staff, are still going through reconstructive surgeries to give them better range of motion.
“Some have had 20 to 25 surgeries,” Kersten said. “Any part of the body where there is scar tissue can experience decreased range of motion.”
Many children get their burns in cooking accidents, hot baths or car accidents.
Kersten was fresh out of nursing school more than 15 years ago when one of the burn surgeons told her about the camp.
“I got a job as a camp counselor and fell in love with the kids and the whole concept of getting people to thrive and be accepted for who they are,” she said.
“Now I come back every year.”
Anna Marie Lux is a Sunday columnist for The Gazette. Call her with ideas or comments at 608-755-8264 or email email@example.com.