ESTES PARK | It had been a busy week for the campers and counselors gathered in the outdoor amphitheater on a clear Sunday morning.
In eight days, the group of more than 100 children and adults hiked through forests, rode horses and reeled in fish. For eight days, they scaled cliffs, pedaled bikes up steep mountain roads and even took to the stage in a talent show. As they explored the 1,600-acre Cheley campsite in Estes Park and ventured into the surrounding wilds of the Rocky Mountain National Park, the group shared breakfast burritos, cabins, tents and their own stories.
For the majority of the campers and the staff, taking such risks meant more than just conquering their fear of treacherous trails or wild animals. It meant moving past raging physical and psychological pain left by fire.
“You can sit here and declare that this was a great week,” said Alec Rhodes, framed by the full view of the Rocky Mountains from the open-air chapel as he addressed the crowd. “Great experiences stand out, they make life that much greater.”
The rewards of the camp hadn’t come easily, Rhodes said. The counselor cited the exhausting days, aching muscles and the uncertainty that a week in the wilderness brings.
These campers, however, risked much more than muddy feet and bed-roll backs.
“If you’ve ever been involved with a significant burn injury, stand up,” Rhodes said.
Most of the crowd rose.
“What’s really cool about this group is they all share one very unique thing,” Rhodes said as the campers and counselors stood. They succeeded even before they arrived at camp just by facing down fears about coming.
“They had to take that step,” he said.
Since 1983, the Cheley/Children’s Hospital Burn Camp has helped burn patients across the country take those steps toward recovery and confidence. The typical summer camp events are just part of the experience. At its core, the camp is designed to connect young burn patients with a support network, to foster inner healing through shared adventures and shared struggles.
This year, 84 campers and more than 20 counselors and staff gathered Aug. 16 at the Cheley camp site in Estes Park. Some were treated for their injuries at The Children’s Hospital in Aurora; others came from burn units at hospitals across the country. Many of the campers were returning for their third, fourth or fifth year. Former campers returned as counselors, creating a place that exists because of burns that victims work to keep from defining their lives.
“Their scars don’t have to be the primary part of their story.”
Trudy Boulter’s energy is infectious.
On a Saturday morning, she’s driving from one end of the Cheley camp complex to the other, checking on groups camped at separate sites around the area. There’s the mountain bikers, the rock climbers and the horseback riders. Boulter, the director of The Children’s Hospital burn camp program, knows where each group is at all times.
As she drops in for updates on their progress, she knows the name of every camper and counselor. She looms larger than her petite frame when she stops at a site, as kids and teens alike run to gush about their successes in the wild.
As director, Boulter oversees the hospital’s six burn camps, programs that run year-round and include a winter camp in Steamboat Springs.
Boulter, an occupational therapist at The Children’s Hospital’s burn unit, has been camp director for two years. But Boulter’s experience goes deeper than her title. For nearly 30 years, she’s been involved in the hospital’s evolving camp programs, watching the summer program grow from 20 campers in its first year to almost 100 this year.
“Each burn unit can decide for themselves who to recommend,” Boulter said. “There are kids who can have a very small, hidden burn, (but) it can have a huge effect on them.”
Since it started, the burn camp has grown from donations and grants, a funding source that’s remained steady enough to allow staff to bring kids whose families can’t afford the $380 fee.
Even though the program has grown, Boulter said, some things haven’t changed since the first campers rolled out sleeping bags in the 1980s.
“I hope that by coming to camp, their scars don’t have to be the primary part of their story,” Boulter said as she drove along a winding stretch of road to greet the group of horseback riders. “A lot of times I think that other (burn) camp programs tend to choose very isolated jobs, isolated sports and activities where they don’t have to do teamwork.”
Part of that approach is rooted in treatment. Many patients with severe burn injuries are encouraged to stay out of the sun for at least a year, Boulter said, because of the risk of infection and further injury. But there’s a psychological price paid for that isolation, a tendency to feel alienated by physical scars.
Boulter and the camp staff work to end that isolation during the eight days.
“You just forget. The scars aren’t part of who they are here,” Boulter said. “We don’t want that to be part of the story. Sometimes at a campfire, kids will talk about their burn injury. But the goal of it is to say, ‘What did you learn from it? How did you grow from it? How can you use that to help someone else? How can you let it not get in your way?’
“That’s the whole purpose of camp,” Boulter added.
“It’s how you deal with them.”
It’s been a week of conquering obstacles for Lorin Smith.
As soon as the 15-year-old arrived for his fourth year at burn camp, he knew he’d enjoy new privileges and responsibilities. Most significantly, Smith was able to choose an excursion this year that took him deeper into the woods for several days.
Along with the rest of the mountain biking group, Smith spent several days trudging up steep roads and chilly nights sleeping in tents. He cycled through rainstorms and helped cook over the campfire.
“There’s been lots of stuff. The bike camp was difficult, but the most difficult part was going downhill. It was pure adrenaline, trying to dodge the rocks,” said Smith, who came to Estes Park from his home in Oregon. “But I like coming back and giving other kids the best experience they can have. I like to get to know people better.”
Those social ties made this year stand out, Smith said as he ate sloppy joes with friends on the final day of camp.
“It’s probably been my best year, because of my cabin,” Smith said, referring to his roommates. “We basically just hung out at the cabin and hung out at the meetings.”
Such connections didn’t come fast. When staff from the burn unit in Oregon first approached Smith about coming to the camp, he was leery. At 11, he thought he was too young to attend, and he was nervous about making the trip to Colorado.
But his four years at camp have helped change his attitude about the burn he sustained when he was 7 years old, after a gasoline tank explosion set his house ablaze. They’ve made him think differently about the scars that crisscross his face.
“It makes you realize that your scars are nothing,” Smith said. “It’s how you feel, it’s how you deal with them.”
“There are other people who knew how I felt.”
Nestled among the scars that cover Kody Jolly’s chest, reminders of the furious blaze that changed his life forever, is a small tattoo of a flame.
“I was playing with matches and poured some gas from a can onto the fire. It trailed back into the can and the can blew up in my hands,” Jolly said during breakfast with the rest of the mountain bike camp. “I was in the hospital for six and a half months … 50 percent of my body is covered in burn scars.”
When Jolly, 20, talks about his injury from about 10 years ago, he hardly mentions the recovery ward at The Children’s Hospital at Legacy Emanuel in Portland, Ore. He skims over the details of the fire, and he talks about his scars without pause.
His discussion turns almost immediately to his eight years at burn camp, to the support network he’s forged with his fellow campers and his counselors. He’s genuine and grateful.
“It allowed me to express myself in different ways. I had issues talking about my burns. But after my first week here, I had no issues telling people about my burns. My confidence was a totally different thing. I realized I wasn’t the only one who was like this,” Jolly said. “There are other people who knew how I felt. I can call … every one of these counselors when I’m not at camp.”
Jolly wants to fill the same role for future campers. He finished his second year in the burn camp’s Counselor In Leadership Training program this summer.
Counselor jobs at the burn camp are highly prized, and Jolly will have to spend a summer away from Estes Park before he finds out if he gets the job.
“I’ll keep my fingers crossed for it,” Jolly said. “I just love the atmosphere that this place offers.”
“It’s made me a thriver.”
It didn’t matter that Kassidi Gardner hadn’t been seared by fire. Her injury left scars, and that was all that mattered to the camp staff.
Gardner’s leg was badly injured during a bike accident when she was 8 years old. She, too, was treated at Children’s Hospital. She was thrown from her bike and hit the ground with such force that her skin became infected with a lethal bacteria.
“There’s a bacteria that lives in the dirt, it’s called necrotizing fasciitis. It hates the air … but the way I hit, it went into my (tissue),” said Gardner, now 21. “It just eats everything in its path.”
Doctors saved her leg, but even skin grafts couldn’t prevent deep scars.
Ten years ago, Gardner came to burn camp for the same type of recovery and the same kind of moral support the rest of the campers sought. Like those marked by fire, Gardner found new confidence, a tempered identity.
“It’s part of who I am. I wouldn’t be who I am without my scars,” Gardner said. “This camp has made me realize that. It’s made me a thriver.”
Like Jolly, Gardner spent her week at camp in the Counselors In Leadership Training program, hoping to score a spot as a counselor after next year. The strain of facing what might be her last year at the camp showed as she took part in the final day’s activities.
Before heading out for the “Funday” events of rock-paper-scissor battles, an obstacle course and a massive water balloon/shaving cream fight, Gardner took a turn at the lectern for the farewell ceremony at chapel.
Her voice cracked and tears stopped her words. A counselor came to her side as she struggled to tell the audience how much the camp has meant.
“I’m really sad that this is my last year,” Gardner said haltingly as she wiped back tears. “I’d like someday to be able to donate a whole bunch of money to this camp so that more kids like us can go.”
The campers and their families, all wearing colorful T-shirts emblazoned with “No Fear,” were collectively silent as Gardner struggled to finish. Then her voice took on new force. “I would really like to give back to this camp, because it’s given me so much.”
For applications, donation details and more information about the Cheley/Children’s Hospital Burn Camp,
call Trudy Boulter at 720-777-8295 or log on to http://www.noordinarycamps.org">www.noordinarycamps.org.