Growing stronger together at burn camp

September 15, 2021


Melissa Kersten remembers when, early in her time as a counselor at what is known as Burn Camp in Wisconsin, she overheard a group of girls chatting. One of them said: "I would never change what happened to me for anything" and the others agreed.

Campers getting ready to ride
Campers wait to be matched with a horse for a ride at the Summer Camp for Burn Injured Youth in August at Camp Timber-lee in East Troy, Wisconsin. The annual event is produced by the Professional Firefighters of Wisconsin Charitable Foundation. It gets support from Ascension Columbia St. Mary's Regional Burn Center and Outpatient Clinic in Milwaukee.
Photos Courtesy of Professional Fire Fighters of Wisconsin Charitable Foundation

Kersten says she found that curious, considering that what happened to all of them was a burn injury serious enough to require treatment and maybe even a long hospitalization and rehab.

"It was very impactful for me because how do you understand that, not having gone through it?" muses Kersten. "It was kind of crazy to think about all the pain and all the difficulties and sometimes having to relearn how to walk and eat and things like that, and to hear someone say that, I was like 'I need to know more about this.'"

Kersten credits the girls' positive take on their ordeals to the aftercare they have gotten, including from attending Burn Camp.

She has made her professional life all about burn injury recovery. Her full-time job is as a nurse practitioner at Ascension Columbia St. Mary's Regional Burn Center and Outpatient Clinic in Milwaukee. Burn Camp is her avocation. She has volunteered there since 2004, first as a camp counselor and for the last five years as director.

The annual event, officially Summer Camp for Burn Injured Youth, requires year-round planning and much more of her time than just the week of vacation she devotes to it every August. Still, she says: "This is what I do for fun."

Camp Timber-lee
This year the camp was held Aug. 8-14. The location is Camp Timber-lee in East Troy, Wisconsin, about 40 miles west of Milwaukee. Shared use of the 300-acre private space is rented for the event by the Professional Fire Fighters of Wisconsin Charitable Foundation.

Two children smiling
These campers are all smiles as they wait for their turn at the zipline during a nighttime outing at Burn Camp in August. Parents consented to the publication of the campers' pictures that appear on this page. The names of the children were not released to protect their privacy.

Mike Wos, the foundation's executive director, says the group plans and funds events for burn victims of all ages. "Burn Camp is certainly our flagship program that we're most known for," Wos says.

This was the event's 27th year. The foundation began its burn victim programs after three fires in Milwaukee within two weeks in fall 1987 killed 20 people, including 17 children.

"Like most nonprofits, it starts with tragedy but through that tragedy we've served thousands of young burn victims through Burn Camp and other burn injury support programs that we do throughout the year," Wos says.

All of the foundation's programs are free to participants. Wos said the budget for Burn Camp is about $114,000. That includes hiring motor coaches to pick up campers in three Wisconsin cities: Milwaukee, Madison and Green Bay; a week of swimming, fishing, archery, horseback riding and other activities; and lodging for the campers and volunteer staff of 38.

Pandemic adjustments
The week at camp is open to any child aged 7-17 who got care for a burn injury at a medical facility in Wisconsin. Campers tend to come back year after year, and some go on to become counselors. In a typical year, 50-60 children and teenagers attend. This year, like last year, wasn't typical because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Last year, the camp was all virtual. The organizers sent a "camp-in-box" package to all the campers. It included supplies for crafts such as tie-dyeing T-shirts and various other goodies. For seven days, Kersten and the other camp volunteers arranged virtual events that the campers could do by Zoom. In addition to crafts, there was a virtual kayak tour and marshmallow-eating competition.

Child belaying down a climbing wall
A 2021 session camper belays down the climbing tower during Burn Camp. The camp's organizers say the activity encourages the kids to confront their fears and test their bravery.

One of the camp's big events is a fire truck parade that features dozens of engines from departments across the state. Aine King, program coordinator for the Professional Fire Fighters of Wisconsin Charitable Foundation, says that last year, "Each kid's local fire department came out with rig and dropped off coupons for Culver's custard" at their homes. "It was really special, even in the midst of COVID."

This year the overnight camp and the fire truck parade resumed, with modifications. Wos said the camp followed pandemic protocols recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and groups like the YMCA to minimize the chances of COVID spread.

Instead of one weeklong event, the camp was broken into two sessions. From Sunday-Tuesday, campers ages 7-12 attended. The older campers came Thursday-Saturday. Wednesday was a cleaning day. There was a parade at each session, albeit with fewer engines in each.

A village of supporters
As in years past, fire departments from across Wisconsin donated the meals for the campers and volunteers. Wos is with the Oshkosh department, which brought in lunch on Monday. He estimates that the camp has had monetary or in-kind gifts from 3,000 donors over the years.

Boy with a fish
Marked with paint from a tie-dye activity, a 2021 session camper proudly displays his catch.

"It really takes a village to put this on," he says. "Through so many great people, it's made possible year after year."

Some of the funding for the camp comes from an annual golf tournament, an event founded by the National Fire Sprinkler Association. Some of the event's proceeds go to the Ascension Columbia St. Mary's Regional Burn Center and Outpatient Clinic by way of the Ascension Wisconsin Foundation.

Ascension Columbia St. Mary's Regional Burn Center treats burn victims as young as 13. The outpatient clinic treats patients of all ages. Darlene Sargent manages both. She says the clinic, which opened in 2014, meets a specific need of burn patients who, after being treated in an emergency room, sometimes had to wait days for follow-up care. The clinic has a goal to get all patients seen within 48 hours of their ER visits. Sargent says patients usually are seen within 24 hours.

The clinic is staffed by four nurses who provide medical care and education for wound care and scar management. The clinic provides follow-up care for adults discharged from the hospital's inpatient burn unit and youth discharged from pediatric burn centers in the Milwaukee area. Kersten also assists at the clinic, which she helped open.

Girl opening a box of goodies for camp
A virtual Burn Camp participant checks out a box of goodies in August 2020. Because of the pandemic, the sleepaway camp was switched to an online one. Each camper got a box of supplies for a week of virtual activities and meetups.

Sargent says burn care requires a caregiver who can tend to people with physical and emotional wounds from the accident or abuse that led to their injuries. "They want to work with a very vulnerable patient population," she says of the burn center staff.

Sargent says many burn center or clinic staffers have volunteered their time as either counselors or craft or activity leaders at Burn Camp. She likes to attend on the camp's visitors' day, which in non-pandemic times typically draws a few hundred people.

"I just like to see the kids, see them grow, see the adults that work at the camp," she says. "It's nice to see all the support that the Burn Camp gets from various organizations."

Connecting with others
This year Burn Camp drew 42 overnight campers; five attended virtually. A side event called Explorers Camp for children ages 3-6 had three children who participated virtually. In normal years, explorers get an early taste of the camp by spending one day there with their families. They are even assigned a bunk in a cabin where they hang out for part of the day.

Camper waiting to go for a ride
A camper is eager to mount up for a group trail ride around the Camp Timber-lee acreage. Many campers return every year for the mid-August camp session.

This was 12-year-old Jazmin Gutierrez' fourth year at camp. Jazmin got outpatient care after being scalded by a bowl of ramen noodles that tipped over as she pulled it out of a microwave that was nearly out of her reach.

Her mother, Crystal Kozinski, says Jazmin loves going to the camp. Horseback riding and fishing are among her favorite activities and she raves about the food.

Kozinski says being around the other kids her first year at camp made Jazmin less self-conscious about a burn scar on her chest. "When she went to camp and she saw some of the other kids who were way worse than her, she felt bad for feeling bad," Kozinski says.

Freedom to thrive
That sort of connection and self-awareness is what the camp is all about, say its organizers. While the experience mostly is vintage summer camp, sprinkled in are some self-esteem and self-awareness sessions as well as at least one motivational speech. Activities like a zip line and a rope course that let campers push themselves to their limits teach that their injuries don't define or limit them, the organizers say.

Kersten says: "I'm just most proud of being able to watch the campers grow up and maybe making a small impact in their lives and being able to encourage them to know that they're not alone in their journey and that we're always here to come alongside them."


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