Laughter and playful shouts rang around the South Shore’s Camp Concord this week as about 50 children with severe burn injuries gathered from all over the country for the annual Firefighters Kids Camp.
The camp moved from the Redding area in 1993; this year marks the 20th anniversary of the camp at the Tahoe location.
The weeklong camp is organized by the Firefighters Burn Institute. Similar events take place all over the nation throughout the summer.
The staff is made up of volunteers. Costs of the program are paid for through donations, making the experience free for campers.
“Being here with kids like me makes me feel better,” said 10-year-old Julian, a camper from the Bay Area. At 7, Julian was caught in a house fire, sparked by a faulty faux Christmas tree. His face and body were left disfigured. One of his brothers died.
At camp, Julian baited crawfish, shot a bow and arrow, rode mountain bikes and scaled the climbing wall.
“It’s a good challenge,” he said with a smile after completing a route on the wall.
The 10-year-old hung his arm around his new friend Jovanny, also 10, whose burns — from a kitchen accident when he was 4 — were less severe, but still very much a part of his young life.
“The funnest part of camp is I get to meet more people that I’ve never met,” Jovanny said. “I don’t feel like the only person in school that’s burned.”
The campers, who range in age from 6 to 17, spend the week together. They enjoy typical camp activities, from archery and boating, to rock climbing, fishing and crafts.
“They’re able to come up and just have a camp environment with all their buddies,” camp co-director Blake Lawson said. “They do everything any other kid would do.”
This interaction helps the children recover both psychologically and physically from the trauma of their experiences, Lawson said. Camp counselor Makiah Eilts, 31, knows the benefits firsthand. She has attended the camp since 1992, a year after she was burned in a barbecue accident.
“I don’t think I would be where I’m at without camp and the way these role models have in my past instilled different life skills,” Eilts said. “Now, it’s my turn to give back.”
The challenges the children face outside of camp are incredibly difficult, Eilts said. The physical impact of the burns can be confounding and limiting, while the emotional blow can linger for years. The camp gave Eilts a chance to be hopeful, she said.
“It’s great because I’m able to be myself,” Eilts said.
“I don’t have people looking at me. Out in the public, people just stare. I’m able to look past that now, but some of the kids aren’t used to that yet. It’s a great environment where we don’t have to worry about what we look like physically or where our scars are and what our limitations are.”
Part of the goal of the camp is to get the kids to do things they’ve never tried or never thought they could do, Lawson said. Camp counselors, all volunteers, do their best to work around any disabilities to get the kids up the climbing wall or out on the boat.
“The physical challenges that they have don’t matter,” he said. “They put on a harness and a carabiner and rappel lines and just zip around. It just shows them who they are. It lets them max out what they‘ve got and gives them something to hope for and build on.”