A few years ago, at the start of Camp “I Am Me”—a weeklong getaway for children and young adults who have been affected by burn-related injuries—a 12-year-old boy approached an 8-year-old girl.
The girl had suffered severe burns to her arms, chest, and head in a house fire. A bandana adorned most of her head, the large handkerchief hiding disfigurements and covering barren patches.
“Hey, you don’t have to wear that bandana here,” the boy said. “We all have scars.”
Six days later, a dance for the campers (ages 8-20) was held. The attendees got all dressed up for the final event. A certain 8-year-old girl showed up, radiant and graceful and assured.
And minus her bandana.
It’s Philip Zaleski’s favorite Camp “I Am Me” anecdote. He’s the executive director of Mount Prospect-based Illinois Fire Safety Alliance (IFSA), the nonprofit that hosts the annual gathering at YMCA Camp Duncan in Ingleside. The 31st edition started last weekend and ends on June 25.
“That scene, that girl’s appearance at the dance—that’s what our camp is all about,” Zaleski says. “It’s about feeling normal in public again. You could see the confidence she had gained since the check-in day. You also could tell she was no longer worried about what others might think of her.
“Our camp is truly a unique program that allows children who had been burned by scalding water, chemicals, or electricity to have a camping experience in a judgment-free environment with others who had endured similar experiences.”
Nearly 50 signed up for the camp this year. They hail from all over Illinois, with a few calling Wisconsin and Indiana home. Camp “I Am Me” is cost-free, thanks to the generosity of individuals, groups, businesses, and fire departments. Families of the burn victims were made aware of the camp via the coordinated efforts of the IFSA, hospital burn units, the State Fire Marshal’s Office, and fire departments across the state.
The camp features a wide array of activities and skill periods, as well as specialized sessions that deal with specific needs of burn survivors. They horseback ride, swim, and shoot arrows at a target. They journal. They exit therapy sessions with Alps-high self-esteems. About 25 percent of this year’s camp counselors, Zaleski notes, are former “I Am Me” campers.
Addison Fire Protection District Public Educator Randy Ahlgrim has served as a volunteer at 100 percent of the camps. Yes, he’s 31-for-31. Another longtime camp volunteer, Deerfield-Bannockburn Fire Protection District Deputy Chief Ray Larson, spearheads the popular Fun Fair on the Wednesday of each Camp “I Am Me.”
The fair features music, games, rides, and attractions on the day when the campers also get to ride along in a parade of fire engines and other emergency vehicles. The procession allows the burn victims to reunite with EMTs and other medical personnel under less traumatic conditions.
“The camp empowers the kids to go back to their communities and not be so worried about reactions to the sight of their scars,” Larson, a Grayslake resident, says. “They’re no longer ashamed, no longer embarrassed. What I love about the camp is how it makes each camper realize, ‘I’m not alone.’
“They discover that,” he adds, “by baring their scars and talking about their injuries with counselors and each other.”
Each camper receives a 30-gallon leaf bag stuffed with toys, games, coloring books, and stuffed animals. If a volunteer notices a bag hadn’t been filled to the brim, they jam more goodies into it in no time.
But the giving doesn’t stop there.
“The kids,” Larson says, “like to hand out some of the items to their siblings and friends at home. It’s just … amazing.”
Check-in day always moves Zaleski. Its setting is a lengthy driveway, with music blaring and people—young and old—dancing.
“Campers arrive, they recognize volunteers from previous camps, and they start screaming joyful screams,” Zaleski. “Lots of hugs, lots of happy tears.”
Larson has been on the receiving end of countless embraces during his two decades as a volunteer. But nothing melts him more than a simple, heartfelt expression does.
“Seeing a child return a smile, on the first day of camp … that gets me every time, because it’s meaningful,” Larson says. “We’re not even wearing shirts that identify where we work, but they remember us, and they return our smiles. Then they come up to us and say hi.
“They’re as happy to see us as we are to see them.”
Zaleski seeks feedback from the campers’ parents weeks after the conclusion of each Camp “I Am Me.” The responses hearten him.
“They often tell us that their child is more willing to talk about their injuries and scars and feelings,” Zaleski says. “Being around kids and camp counselors all week enabled them to talk more freely about the sensitive subjects. That then sometimes leads to the child opening up about another difficult topic, like the teasing they’d experienced at school.
“Talking,” he adds, “is one of the most important aspects of the healing process.”
Since 1982, the Illinois Fire Safety Alliance has been bringing together persons and groups with common interest in fire safety, burn prevention, and public education. It also promotes programs and disseminates information related to fire safety and burn prevention. Call 847-390-0911 or visit ifsa.org for more information. The organization’s email address is [email protected]