Va. firefighters volunteer at 25th annual camp for young burn victims
The camp — which is free to qualifying burn survivors — is held each year at Camp Holiday Trails, a nonprofit located in the Blue Ridge Mountains
By Mike Holtzclaw
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — When Newport News firefighter Katie Grabow arrives in Charlottesville this week to volunteer at the Central Virginia Burn Camp, she will know what to expect.
This is her fourth time working at the camp for young burn victims. Her first time was very different.
“I was a little fearful,” she said. “We deal with the fires, but the after-effects aren’t something we deal with a lot. Especially with kids. It took a little acclimation as far as how to deal with the kids. That first year takes some adjustment.”
But pretty soon she came to a simple realization: She needed to deal with these kids the way she would deal with any other kids.
Viewed from a distance, the camp — celebrating its 25th year — would look like any traditional summer camp: Kids ranging in age from 7 to 17 participating in outdoor activities and sports, arts and crafts, exercises designed for both amusement and confidence-building.
But for these kids, those normal adolescent activities aren’t always easy. Many are hesitant to wear swim suits that reveal scars and disfigurations. Others have scars that are more emotional than physical. But for one week at the Central Virginia Burn Camp, they know they are around people who understand.
“We get to expose them to different things they might not be exposed to in their everyday lives,” Grabow said. “They can see that there’s nothing preventing them from doing it, just like anyone else.”
The camp — which is free to qualifying burn survivors — is held each year at Camp Holiday Trails, a nonprofit located in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains that offers programming aimed at kids with various medical conditions and disabilities.
In 1994, the Charlottesville Professional Firefighters Association launched a small-scale camp for burn victims. The next year it was expanded to include volunteers and campers from all around the state. Tim Wright, a captain with the Norfolk Fire Department, came on board that second year and serves as co-director.
“I could never put into words that I thought I got out of it — it was too hard to explain,” Wright said. “Then someone said to me, ‘It sounds like you were getting balance in your life,’ and I realized that’s exactly what it is. As a firefighter, you see some really bad stuff, but when I work at this camp and see how much it helps these kids, that provides balance and perspective.”
The camp has been operated on a volunteer basis for 25 years, Wright said, with no paid positions. Firefighters from around the state work as counselors, as do young burn victims who “age out” of the camp.
Each day of the camp, a different fire department shows up to cook and donate meals for the campers.
“They take great pride in cooking, and it’s fun to see what everyone does with it,” Wright said. “There’s a firehouse from Lynchburg that makes a traditional Thanksgiving dinner, and a crew from Chesapeake that makes the best lasagna you’ll ever eat. Every year the kids look forward to those specialties.”
Destiny Williams of Newport News was 9 years old when she was burned by a pot of boiling water in her family’s home. She had burns on 70 percent of her stomach and on her legs and spent a month in the hospital.
“The camp really helped me a lot,” she said. “Once I was burned I felt like I was different from all my friends. I didn’t feel comfortable going to the beach or the pool. Being at the camp really helped me to gain confidence. Just being around people, and hearing stories about how to deal with people looking at me or giving me attention — it just made me much more comfortable.”
Nine years later, her scars have faded but are still visible.
Williams is 18 now, a freshman at Old Dominion University. She will be missing the camp this year for the first time since her injury, but she plans to go back soon and start working as a counselor.
“I have the spirit of the camp, and I want to help instill it in new campers,” she said. “Hopefully they’ll come back every year like I did. This way someone can benefit from what I did as a kid.”
Grabow, 30, joined the Newport News Fire Department six years ago and began volunteering at Central Virginia Burn Camp shortly thereafter, after hearing about it from a friend in Norfolk.
As the camp celebrates its 25th year, she hopes more firefighters and more young burn victims will learn about it.
She plans to keep volunteering as long as she can.
“Just being able to be a part of their lives at some point, and watch them grow a little,” Grabow said. “That’s something you don’t always get as a firefighter. When you can see them continuing to do well, it’s really cool to be a part of.”
CENTRAL VIRGINIA BURN CAMP
The Central Virginia Burn Camp, founded in 1994, is held each year at Camp Holiday Trails in Charlottesville. For more information on the camp, go online to vaburncamp.org or call 434-263-6566.
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