By Betsy Judge
“I looked in their direction as we passed to say hello, among them was a girl who had been burned with heavy scars on her young teenage face. I smiled and said hello but when her eyes met mine … instinctively I looked away. “Why …?” I asked myself silently. “I don’t want her to feel like I’m staring at her” I answered. Working through it in my head I realized; these kids want to be seen! They want to be seen as who they are–just ordinary kids. Ordinary kids who happen to have been burned. … If it couldn’t be forever, just these four merciful days before they return to their daily lives and the certain cruelty they must endure.”
So reads a first-hand account by Jeffrey Camden, on the website of the Children’s Burn Foundation of Florida Inc. (CBFF), after his ini- tial experience as a burn camp buddy at Camp Tequesta.
The camp was started by Ruth Pierson, says Irene Gaccek, the Tampa Bay Regional Coordinator for CBFF and a fire inspector for the city of Largo.
“She died in a house fire and a (Clearwater) firefighter resuscitated her. She would go to treat- ments and see kids, and she felt bad for them because they were always hiding,” says Gaccek.
Pierson witnessed harsh treatment of a burn- scarred teen at a McDonalds, and she dreamed of a place where burn survivors could get togeth- er and meet other burn survivors and not be embarrassed. The first camp was held in 1991 in Hillsborough County with about eight boys according to Gaccek. They moved to a Disney property with about 25 kids and now host between 50 and 100 burn survivors at the Florida Elks Youth Camp in Umatilla, Florida.
The CBFF, a 501(c)(3), is run completely by volunteers, most of whom are in a fire related business. “These are our kids,” adds Gaccek.
According to CBFF, children have an espe- cially hard time adjusting to burns due to their maturity level. Adapting to their new “look,” constant stares, questions from strangers, and/or physical limitations can be daunting.
“One of the things that surprised me is that I had two boys with severe burns on their on chests and they are married to absolutely beautiful women,” says Gaccek. “I said to them, ‘I have to ask if you were worried when you first took off your shirt?’ They said, ’I never even gave it a thought.’ And I was so happy to hear that, because that’s what camp is about. We don’t want you to second-guess yourself.”
She says the whole point of camp is to teach burn survivors that they are not victims. “No one is going to hand you anything for free because you were burned, you still have to get good grades and work hard and (eventually) get a job.”
Each burn survivor is partnered with a camp buddy; an adult that is their supervisor. Despite their challenges, the campers, ages 6 to 16, are still kids with all their foolish impulses.
“They may have a burn injury, but they’re still boys and girls in their teens, and we’ve never had an incident, never had a problem, and I credit that to the one-on-one supervision.”
She says it is great that lots of kids who attend- ed camp as children have become buddies as adults. “They can relate to the injuries where people in the fire business really can’t.”
Camp buddies and their kids stay paired throughout childhood and many remain life long friends. Gaccek became a buddy in 1992 when the first girls went to camp.
“I was paired with a girl from Sarasota when she was 12, and we went till she was 18,” she says, “and she still keeps in touch with me, and we developed a friendship over the years. I’ve been doing it about 25 years, and I keep touch with most of my kids. I have been invited to wed- dings, to births, to all kinds of activities. I watch them grow up get married and have babies.”
With health privacy laws it is harder for the CBFF to iden- tify potential campers. They used to get lists from hospitals. Gaccek says when she hears about a fire with pediatric burn survivors, she Googles the par- ents names and tries to find them or calls the local fire depart for assistance.
“I try to stress that camp is free. If you are at your kid’s school and it looks like a child has a burn injury, get the par- ents name and email address and I’ll get in touch with them and give them all the informa- tion they want about camp,” she adds.
The camp is totally funded by CBFF and is held once a year from a Thursday through Sunday in November. Gaccek says there are tons of things for the kids to do.
They also offer scholarships to burn survivors thanks to the generous support of Pinellas County Commissioner John Morroni. “I love John,” says Gaccek. “John came to camp with his wife and son. They spent the day with us to see what the kids do. They met a couple our kids and heard their stories and were moved by them.”
They also do exchanges with camps in California, Colorado and with Angel Faces in New Hampshire, a nonprofit organization that provides retreats and support to girls and women with disfiguring burn and trauma injuries.
In addition to paying for camp and rent- ing busses to get the kids there, Gaccek buys each camper a sleeping bag so kids who don’t have nice sheets to take to camp aren’t embarrassed. The organization also provides them with books, backpacks, anything they think the kids may need. She gets donations from various organizations including the Northeast Exchange Club, the firefighters motorcycle club Fire and Iron, and the Largo Fire Department. They rely on donations and some years are better than others.
Piper Fire, headquartered in Clearwater, has hosted a fundraiser for CBFF the last two years and will be hosting their third annual Footgolf Tournament and Happy Hour at the Largo Municipal Golf Course on Mar. 24.
“The Children’s Burn Foundation has been a darling of the fire protection industry in general for at least the last 10 years,” says Chris Johnson, Piper’s president and CEO. He knew of the CBFF through his connections with various professional associations. It was at a Fire Equipment Dealers Association meeting where he met some of the campers. “Seeing these kids with great attitudes; we were so touched with how the camp helps them accept their condition. It was definitely moving for me personally, and I think for my team that was there,” he adds. The CBFF became the focus of Piper Fire Gives Back committee that works on their charitable donations and outreach.
They have raised more than $5,000 for the organization through this up-and-coming combo of soccer and golf. Players in the 9-hole footgolf tournament kick soccer balls down fairways and into a 21-inch diameter hole. Johnson took his family to the Largo course on opening weekend in 2013, and they loved it and the company thought footgolf would get different people involved.
Tickets are $25 for adult participants and $20 for kids, spectators are $15 and tickets include dinner, live music and awards and prizes for play- ers. They can field 36 teams of between four and six players.
“We are excited,” says Johnson. “We’ve got such great warm community acceptance of this event. The Central Pinellas Chamber of Commerce has supported us; the city is excited about it, and it helps them promote footgolf, so that’s a plus.”
For more information about CBFF go to www.childrensburnfoundationoffl.com. To register for the fundraiser go to www.piperfire.com/footgolf