August 9th, 2010
03:38 PM ET
Summer camp means swimming, campfires and meeting new friends. For Chelsea Gasper and other burn survivors, camp can also means emotional healing.
The Finger Lakes Regional Burn Association annual Burn Camp just wrapped up, and Chelsea, 17, was there as she has been every year since she was five. This year, she was a junior counselor.
“You have to regain your confidence [after being burned]. Burn camp was the difference. Meeting people and having fun. Seeing other kids with burns,” says Chelsea, a high school student from Webster, N.Y.
Chelsea received burns over a third of her body when she was three: On her forehead, stomach and both legs, arms and hands. Her injury was the result of a freak accident. When a grease fire erupted in her then New York City home one night, she ran out the back door. Not knowing she was there, Chelsea’s father opened the door and threw the flaming oil into the darkness.
Chelsea says she doesn’t remember getting burned, but the teenager has had to deal with the physical and emotional pain ever since. She says the fellowship of burn camp has been invaluable.
“Camp is like a second family for me. I feel comfortable here. It’s just fun,” she says.
Paul Schwartzman, executive director of the Finger Lakes Regional Burn Association, says the free camp in Painted Post, NY, offers a chance each summer for 40 to 45 campers to relax with other kids who share what can be an isolating experience.
They also learn ways to address both curiosity and bullying stemming from their disfiguring burns, he says. Schwartzman, a licensed mental health counselor, adds that the benefits last long after the camp ends.
“We get incredible feedback. Just the notion of being socially accepted,” he says. “They may be more willing to put the bathing suit on at the public beach. They may be more open to talking about their experiences.”
He points to Chelsea as an example of someone who was introverted and shy only a few years ago. Camp, he says, has helped her emerge into someone willing to talk about her experience.
The Children’s Burn Foundation in Sherman Oaks, Calif., holds four burn camps during the year. Carol Horvitz, executive director at the Children’s Burn Foundation, says children leave the camps different than when they arrived.
“These camps make a long lasting impact on these children. It speeds their recovery. It speeds their ability to reenter the world with a sense of purpose and belonging,” she says.
Programming note: Dr. Sanjay Gupta will host a special edition of “Sanjay Gupta MD” on Saturday and Sunday at 7:30 a.m. ET, devoted to the story of Youssif, an Iraqi boy savagely burned by masked men in Baghdad and treated in Los Angeles, thanks to the generosity of people around the world moved by his story.
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