By Rhonda AppleOctober 11, 2012
ARLINGTON, Va. (Oct. 11, 2012) -- Several tour buses filled with excited teenagers, camp counselors and staff representing the 17th International Association of Firefighters International Children's Burn Camp, rolled onto Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall, Va., Sept. 26. The visitors arrived at the JBM-HH Fire Station to spend a few hours with command leadership, firemen and members of the Directorate of Emergency Services.
The teen burn survivors are all first-time visitors to the nation's capital and come from every corner of the United States and Canada. Organized by the IAFF's charitable foundation, the annual week-long camp provides an opportunity for teens to give and receive support from peers and counselors.
Burns often leave scars which never heal and leave survivors with irreparable emotional wounds. The camp allows the teenagers to share their experiences with one another and learn from each other through stories of courage, success and survival.
While visiting the National Capital Region, the group stayed at Camp Wabanna in Edgewater, Md., where the kids took part in team building and peer support activities.
"I want to thank you for coming here and sharing this event with us today," said JBM-HH Commander Col. Fern O. Sumpter, during a casual chat with the group.
She presented challenge coins to the youngest camper, 13-year-old Marius Woodward, and the oldest, five 16-year-olds, then thanked the group for visiting JBM-HH.
"I've enjoyed my time in the Washington, D.C., area, the walking tour at the U.S. Naval Academy and a boat tour at Annapolis, Maryland," said Ryley Sweet, 15, of Kansas City, Mo., who plans to enlist in the Marine Corps. "I feel it's really special I was chosen to represent my home-state burn camp. It is great here," he added, pointing out the precise movements of The Old Guard's drill team.
Sweet suffered second- and third-degree burns on his arms and chest when he was 21 months old. He knocked a pot of boiling water off his grandmother's stove, attempting to help her.
"I was very lucky and didn't suffer many scars," he said.
Burn camp counselor Dwayne Juot, of Manitoba and northwest Ontario, was Sweet's camp counselor. Each camper is paired with one counselor for the Washington, D.C., trip.
"The biggest highlight of the trip was my camper. Ryley was selected to help lay a wreath at Arlington National Cemetery. You really see a marked improvement in the kids' confidence after a couple of days here. I really appreciate the opportunity to be a part of this and hope I can make a difference in [Ryley's] life," said Juot.
Burn camp attendee Caryn Stewart, 15, of West Union, Iowa said she was eight when she was in a bad accident, resulting in burns to more than 85 percent of her body. Stewart was in the hospital for two months, and spent half that time in a medically-induced coma.
"I had third degree burns on over 75 percent of my body," she said. "It was unclear whether I'd be able to see again -- my eyes were completely black; I couldn't talk for 56 days because I was on a ventilator."
She said doctors told her she'd never be able to go outside without wearing long-sleeved shirts and pants, for protection. "I'm an Iowa farm girl; I proved them wrong." She credits her dad, Brian, for doing such a great job raising her after she lost her mom, sister and cousin in a private plane crash.
Stewart has had many skin grafts and a number of reconstructive surgeries on her hands and said she will be scheduled soon for back surgery.
"My entire back is burned and I have bands stretching across from elbow to elbow," she explained.
"Being selected for the International Burn Camp is such a huge honor," said Stewart. "Meeting all the different kids, hearing their stories is so amazing -- to learn what they've gone through. Also, meeting the firefighters [on JBM-HH] was wonderful. They're great."
Stewart said the highlight of her trip was meeting country singer Bucky Covington.
"I love music -- and I sing, play guitar and piano. Having the privilege of meeting him and playing his guitar was an inspiration to me and my music," she said.
Allison Offerman, an Iowa native, now living in Lincoln, Neb., is a burn survivor and Stewart's counselor.
"We used to be campers together. She's just great, we get along like sisters. We share a love of music, art and other interests," said Stewart.
"I feel the need to give back, that's why I'm a counselor," said Offerman, who has undergone about 17 reconstructive surgeries -- two of them within the first week after she was burned. Offerman, who is obtaining her master's in music, said she and Stewart share more than a love of music.
"Our scarring is similar -- we both have honeycomb scars on our arms. Everyone calls us the burn sisters," said Offerman.
Through personal experience, Offerman had advice for burn survivors, particularly in regard to bullying.
"Use your experience as a burn survivor as an opportunity to teach people who have never been burned and educate them on what a burn survivor goes through," she said.
The burn camp guests were entertained with performances by The Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps and the Army Drill Platoon (The Old Guard), before enjoying a barbeque, complete with pulled pork and chicken, side dishes and cookies for dessert.
"It is a pleasure to host the International Children's Burn Camp on Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall," said Fire Inspector James Dansereau. He and fellow firefighters have helped coordinate the burn camp visit for nine consecutive years. "I feel as a member of the fire service it is important to give back to survivors who have been burned by something we try to prevent. It is great to be able to give the survivors recovering from injury, the VIP treatment."
He said it was rewarding to bring joy to kids who have been through such a rough time.
Fire Chief Capt. Russell Miller agreed with Dansereau.
"JBM-HH fire and emergency services look forward each year to provide something special to those children who attend the International Burn Camp, and also support the International Association of Fire Fighters, who sponsors the event," he said.