The trauma of a burn experience lasts a lifetime. Children have an especially hard time adjusting to their burns due to their maturity level. Adapting to their new “look”, constant stares, questions from strangers, and/or physical limitations can be daunting to even the most mature burn survivor. Learning to cope with the newness of it all is how the concept of our burn camp first came about.
The idea of having a burn camp for pediatric burn survivors started with an adult burn survivor in 1991. Children’s Burn Foundation of Florida, Inc, operating under a different name at that time, was formed to offer pediatric burn survivors the opportunity to see and interact with other burn survivors. In 1991 the first statewide camp for burned children was offered at Walt Disney World. For the safety of the children, the camp was set up so that each child was assigned to an Adult Burn Buddy while on the vast Disney property. This turned out to be such a success, the one-on-one buddy system, that this concept is still in practice at our camp today, and is the only burn camp in Florida offering this one to one ratio.
During the first few years at Disney, approximately 20-25 children attended camp. As the word spread about camp, more and more survivors from across Florida joined burn camp. Soon, pediatric burn survivors from Georgia and South Carolina united with our group and the numbers swelled to 90-100 children in attendance. As you can imagine, the logistics, not to mention the cost, for housing, feeding and entertaining this many children and Burn Buddies at Disney became overwhelming. The Foundation went on a hunt for a new camp location. After months of researching and visiting various camp locations around the state, the Foundation finally agreed upon the The Florida Elks Youth Camp in Umatilla (Marion County).
The Elks, known for their devotion to children, had built a phenomenal “camp”. Already set up and operating as a summer camp for “Elks” kids, this 400 + acre site was more than prepared to accommodate our crowd. Their state-of-the-art facilities already had lodging in place, large-scale cooking facilities, and every amenity any child could ever want in a camp, already on site. All we had to do was pack our bags.
In 2000, Children’s Burn Foundation held their first burn camp at the Elks Camp. It took a year in the planning, and the effort was well worth it! The kids arrived at camp, not really sure what to make of the new location, but it didn’t take long for them to settle right in. With their Adult Burn Buddies in tow, they set off to explore the entire camp. This new found freedom, previously denied at Disney due to crowd control, was the turning point for many of the children. They now had the ability to run, play, scream, holler, throw water balloons, and just be kids. They were no longer “on display” for Disney guests to stare at; they were surrounded by other burn survivors and could just be kids. And what a difference it made! The new location really brought out the inner child in each of them(regardless of age), but more importantly, the relaxed atmosphere allowed the children to open up and really talk with each other, their buddies or volunteers about their personal burn experiences. And the healing began. We do not have psychiatrists, psychologists, or family counselors at camp. No one is required to talk about or discuss their burn experience if they don’t want to. What we do have is an open, caring atmosphere of adults and children willing to listen if someone does have issues or experiences that they want to share.
Since 2000, Children’s Burn Foundation has been firmly entrenched at the Florida Elks Youth Camp. Although the Georgia and South Carolina groups have moved back to their respective states and started their own camps, our love of the Elks has blossomed into a wonderful partnership. For as long as they will have us, it will be our home.
After our first year there, we surveyed the kids and asked if they preferred Disney or the Elks as a camp location. While there were a few that chose Disney, the resounding majority chose the Elks. The adults and children love the outdoor camp-like ambiance, the laid-back structure of the overall weekend, the food, and the activities.
The activities. We can’t say enough about the activities at camp. Activities abound at camp! There are so many activities for the kids to participate in on a daily basis that they have to pick and choose which ones to make time for. The activities are designed, created and implemented to have the children try new things, interact/team play with others, and stretch their imaginative and physical boundaries. The children are not required to participate in any activity, or ones that they feel uncomfortable with, like the ropes course. Fear of heights is a universal fear in most people. The first few times the ropes course was opened to the children, very few took part in it. Now, it’s a major attraction each year. From the youngest to the oldest, even the most fearful have tried some form or another of the ropes course. And there are a lot to choose from!
The ropes course is an annual activity at camp, along with several others: tennis, archery, heated swimming pool, kickball, canoeing, campfire, dance with dj, arts and crafts, and slip-n-slide, and hayrides. Through the years, we’ve hosted a multitude of other activities to keep things lively and entertaining. Activities such as horseback riding, Gus-the-kissing-camel, helicopters, mortorcycles, firetrucks and police cruisers, Safari Todd (hands-on event with wild animals), magicians, and orienteering (Compassing your way across property).
In addition to new activities, each year boasts a “theme” that the activities revolve around. The “Survivor” theme has been a huge success. The children and their respective Buddies were divided into four teams. Throughout the course of the weekend, the teams participated in various challenges against each other. Challenges included: Poolside Ring Toss, Barrel Race, Canoe/Flag Race, Frankenstein Walk, Bean Bag Toss, Puzzlemania, and the Memory Game. The kids have enjoyed this “challenges” events so much that they’ve remained in the schedule even though we’ve moved on to new themes. Other themes have been “Halloween” (with a haunted house, trick or treating, ghoulish makeup, and a Costume Dance); “Mardi Gras” (team float building competition, costume competitions, dance, etc.): “Holidays” (each day at camp we celebrated a new holiday like Halloween, Thanksgiving, etc.). While some things at camp will change from year to year, the overall schedule and most activities stays the same. And that’s the draw. The kids love that they know each other upon arrival, they know the property layout, the rules, the expectations, the activities, and what to bring/not bring to camp. They also know that each year brings new themes, new activities, new experiences and new people.
As funding allows, Children’s Burn Foundation will be expanding the activities and events surrounding burn camp. In addition, the Elks have been making huge changes to the property including upgrades to the ropes course, additional cabins, a Frisbee-golf course, and a second pavilion located near the ropes course.