Young Burn Survivors Thrive at Illinois Burn Camp

I am me camp, burn survivors
27th Annual Camp “I Am Me”

Mt. Prospect, IL-(ENEWSPF)- From June 18-24, nearly 70 burn-injured children between the ages of eight and 16 will attend Camp “I Am Me.” The 27th annual week-long camp is hosted by the Illinois Fire Safety Alliance at YMCA Camp Duncan in Ingleside, Illinois, featuring a wide array of typical camp activities as well as special activities that deal with the specific needs of burn survivors. Generous donations from various groups statewide fully fund Camp “I Am Me,” which would otherwise cost approximately $2,400 per camper.

“Camp ‘I Am Me’ is a truly unique camp that allows young children who have been burned by scalding water, chemicals, fire, or electricity to be in a judgment-free environment with others who have shared similar experiences,” says Philip Zaleski, executive director of the Illinois Fire Safety Alliance. “Through our work with hospital burn units, the State Fire Marshal’s Office, and fire departments statewide we hope to reach all burn-injured children in Illinois so they can benefit from the free camp.”

Campers at Camp “I Am Me” can participate in nearly 50 activities, including horseback riding, swimming, and archery. But the activities that may have the biggest impact are those designed specifically for emotional healing. Through character development, journaling, and therapeutic sessions that help build self-esteem, they are able to take advantage of resources often not available in their hometowns.

Who fights fires in my town?

“When the children attend camp, they find that they are not alone. The physical and emotional recovery from their burns is taken on from a community approach in which everyone helps and learns from each other. They don’t have to hide or be afraid to be themselves. Instead, they learn how to become more confident and bring that confidence back home,” notes Zaleski.

The positive impact of Camp “I Am Me is evident as over one-third of camp volunteers each year are former campers. In addition, members of the fire service and medical community, as well as educators and members of the private sector, volunteer their time for a total of nearly one volunteer for each camper.

Faces of Camp “I Am Me”

Ben Iammartino
Ben Iammartino

Ben Iammartino | Oak Park, Illinois
Years attending Camp: 5

When Ben was five years old, he enjoyed climbing on the kitchen counters. The goal of reaching some tasty treats in the cabinets was more powerful than the scolding he would receive from his parents. One day, as he climbed on the counters, he accidentally knocked over a pot of boiling water on the stovetop. The scalding hot water spilled onto his hands, legs, and feet, causing second-degree burns to his hands and third-degree burns to his feet. The incident necessitated a skin graft surgery and a 17-day stay at Loyola University Medical Center’s Burn Unit. During his stay, he met social worker, Kelly McElligott, who also is a volunteer at Camp “I Am Me.” Kelly encouraged Ben to attend Camp so she could show him the exceptional lives that burn survivors can live. Ben attended that first year simply looking forward to a fun “sleep-away” camp, but he is now eager to go back each year to feel the strength of the amazing, young burn community. Through Camp, Ben has learned that his burn injury can harness the power of empathy and he can give support to not only burn survivors at Camp, but also his peers in his community. Ben and his family call the Camp’s volunteers “unsung heroes” who give so much of themselves and have helped transform the lives of Ben and many other young burn survivors.

Otis Culpepper-Draw
Otis Culpepper-Draw

Otis Culpepper-Draw | Chicago, Illinois
Years attending Camp: 2

At the age of one, Otis was placed into scalding hot water in a bathtub. He received third-degree burns to his lower body and part of his back. He was treated at Loyola University Medical Center’s Burn Unit, which is where he found out about Camp “I Am Me” from one of the nurse practitioners at his last appointment. Otis has now attended every year of Camp since he was eight years old. He has made great friends with other burn survivors and enjoys the camp activities, especially basketball and swimming.

Elizabeth “Ellie” Bennett
Elizabeth “Ellie” Bennett

Elizabeth “Ellie” Bennett | Peoria, Illinois
Years attending Camp: 6

When Ellie was eight years old, she and her brother went home from school with another family with whom the Bennetts had planned a barbeque for that evening. Before Ellie’s parents arrived, the charcoal grill was being prepped when a flash fire occurred and caused some of the children’s clothes to catch fire. Ellie’s brother, who was not burned, notes the fireball was as big as the garage. The other family’s father was able to smother the flames on Ellie’s shirt and the mother called 9-1-1. When Ellie arrived at the hospital, they sedated her to place a breathing tube and then transported her by helicopter to St. John’s Hospital’s Pediatric Intensive Care Unit in Springfield. She was treated for burns to 12 percent of her body for four days before moving to Memorial Medical Center. Ellie came home after two weeks but visited weekly to see the burn doctors and the other children. She did not go back to school full time for almost six weeks. Ellie first found out about Camp “I Am Me” through doctors in the burn unit and then received an information card at her elementary school. She wanted to attend Camp to meet other children who had similar experiences as her. Now, Camp “I Am Me” has become Ellie’s second home. It has given her the confidence to be herself, which has helped Ellie become an active performer in various shows in the community and school.

Johnathan Fox
Johnathan Fox

Johnathan Fox | Galesburg, Illinois
Years attending Camp: 8

Johnathan was three years old when he experienced his burn injury; he was attempting to get his dad a coffee cup when he fell into a pot of homemade chicken noodle soup. He found out about Camp “I Am Me” through information handed out at King Elementary School. When Johnathan began attending Camp, he met many new friends and was able to find his true self. Now, as a counselor-in-training, he hopes to help other find themselves and have fun at Camp. He believes that no one is ever alone when they attend Camp because everyone is one, big family. To create awareness for burn survivors and teach others that burn survivors are no different than anyone else, Johnathan shares his story on Facebook each year on the anniversary of his burn injury. “This is me. This is real. I am exactly who I am supposed to be,” he says.

Alec Poos
Alec Poos

Alec Poos | Pleasant Plains, Illinois
Years attending Camp: 5

At the age of 7, Alec was burned when a decorative tabletop firepot was being refilled with gel and there was a flash explosion. The fire ignited Alec’s head, leading to a six-day stay in the hospital and four surgeries for scarring on his face. He will continue to have more surgeries in the future. When Alec found out about Camp “I Am Me” through information that was distributed to his school, he jumped at the opportunity to meet other children like him. He longed to be in a place where he didn’t feel like he had to hide. Camp “I Am Me” has played a crucial part in Alec’s emotion recovery. He felt alone, did not want to look in the mirror, and feared fire. He would hide from people who stared or asked him questions about his scars. After his first experience at Camp, Alec wasn’t nearly as shy and could look at himself in the mirror again. He was no longer afraid to tell his story. His fear of fire diminished each year and is now gone. Most importantly, Alec learned he wasn’t alone; there were other children that had been through or were going through what he experienced. Alec keeps in touch with his counselor from the first year, who has encouraged Alec to join the counselor-in-training program when he turns 16. As Camp ends each year, Alec is already excitedly talking about the next year.

Nolan Barnes
Nolan Barnes

Nolan Barnes | Batavia, Illinois
Years attending Camp: 1

When Nolan was only 18 months old, he climbed on a toilet, then to the sink and turned the hot water on himself. He was stuck in the sink as the 193-degree water scalded him. Nolan’s father was upstairs at the time and did not discover the situation until two minutes later. When 9-1-1 was called, Nolan was fighting for his life as he sustained burns to 30 percent of his body – from his feet to his waist. He faced 11 operations, five blood transfusions, lost all his toes, and now has everlasting scars. Nolan found out about Camp “I Am Me” through Loyola University Medical’s Center’s Burn Unit. Camp allows Nolan to interact with other young burn survivors who share similar experiences and scars, while lifting his self-esteem and feeling of acceptance. It also helps Nolan keep a positive attitude and simply enjoy being a kid. He is only nine years old now, but the experiences he has gained at Camp will help him through his teenage years.

Taylor Gamble
Taylor Gamble

Taylor Gamble | Chicago, Illinois
Years attending Camp: 3

Taylor was three years old when she accidentally pulled hot grease down on herself. She sustained burns to 30 percent of her body as a result of the incident and received treatment at the University of Chicago Medicine’s Burn Center. The nurses at the hospital informed Taylor of Camp “I Am Me.” She chose to attend so she could meet more children like herself. Camp gave Taylor the opportunity to have fun outdoors and enjoy herself without any judgment or stares from others. It has also boosted her self-esteem, taught her to not be judgmental of others, and helped her learn more about herself. Taylor’s experiences at Camp have helped mold her into a loving and caring individual. She is always looking to help and protect those that may be unfairly labeled as the “underdogs” in life.

Nicholas “Nic” Colbert
Nicholas “Nic” Colbert

Nicholas “Nic” Colbert | Bradley, Illinois
Years attending Camp: 6

Nic was 10 years old when he, his brother, and a neighborhood friend were making small fires in their backyard. They decided to add gasoline to make the fire bigger. They poured some gasoline from the can used for the lawnmower into a smaller container. When they poured some gasoline onto the fire, it rose very high and dangerously close to the garage they were playing behind. Nic’s brother, Nathaniel, thought it best to kick the container to put out the fire, but instead the fire went onto Nic. He was taken to Loyola University Medical Center’s Burn Unit. There he found out about Camp “I Am Me” from social worker Kelly McElligott and Dr. Kathy Supple, both of whom volunteer at Camp. Nic used to be painfully shy and initially was hesitant to attend Camp. However, by the end of his first Camp, he was already excited to return. Camp has allowed Nic to see that there are other kids that look and feel like him, many of which have become lifelong friends. Now, as a counselor-in-training, Nic hopes his experiences and knowledge will help fellow camper who may still be acclimating to life with burn injuries.

Malachi “Mal” MacLeod
Malachi “Mal” MacLeod

Malachi “Mal” MacLeod | Harvey, Illinois
Years attending Camp: 5

At the age of two years old, Mal pulled a skillet of pork chops off the stovetop and was burned by the grease. Wanting to meet other young burn survivors, he first began attending burn camps for children in Michigan and Indiana. He later found out about Camp “I Am Me” in Illinois from a Harvey firefighter and has been attending ever since. Over the years, Mal has grown to be close friends with other campers and considers Camp to be his second family. It allows him to be himself with no worry of being judged because of his scars. His enthusiasm for attending Camp was most evident one year when he was faced with the dilemma of having graduation during the week of Camp. He wasn’t going to miss graduation, but he also didn’t want to miss out on Camp. In the end, he made arrangements so he could go to Camp, leave for graduation, and then return to Camp.

About the Illinois Fire Safety Alliance

Since 1982, the Illinois Fire Safety Alliance (IFSA), a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, has been promoting and disseminating fire safety and burn prevention materials and resources. The IFSA also hosts a variety of support programs for burn survivors including the Young Adult Summit, Family Day, and Camp “I Am Me,” a unique weeklong camp for children who have experienced severe burn injuries. For more information, visit www.IFSA.org.