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Parkland Annual Camp for Kids with Burn Injuries Inspires

For more than three decades, children have eagerly anticipated the first week of June and attending Parkland Health’s annual camp for children with burn injuries. Camp I-Thonka-Chi, which is Choctaw for “a place that makes one strong or fearless, not afraid to face life,” held at Camp John Marc near Meridian, Texas, has hosted hundreds of children and teens since its inception and provided a place for them to interact with peers who have experienced similar circumstances.

But it’s not just the children who look forward to the week-long camp. Adults become kids at heart as they delight in helping the youngsters with horseback riding, canoeing, swimming, archery and a ropes course complete with a zip line, among other activities that last from dawn to dusk.

This week David Magill, a former burn nurse who is now an Applications Systems Manager in Parkland’s Information Technology department, is marking his 30th trip to Camp I-Thonka-Chi. He joins more than 50 children who are taking part in the week-long camp free from stares that often accompany their injuries. In addition, eight former campers and four additional adult burn survivors have returned to serve as counselors and mentors to their young counterparts. Firefighters, burn nurses and others serve as camp counselors.

Magill describes camp as “a family reunion not only with the counselors but the kids, too.” The best part, he says, “is seeing the kids running and playing and doing things I never thought they would do again when I was taking care of them in the Burn Intensive Care Unit.”

Humbled, is how retired Arlington Fire Rescue Lieutenant Steve Voltmann describes himself each year at camp. Volunteering for the 20th year, Voltmann said, “I am awed and amazed at the kids. Many of them have been through terrible experiences, but they carry on. Camp is a place where they can be comfortable. A place where they have something in common with their fellow campers. The scars of their trauma are obvious, but at camp they aren’t the big deal that they are in the daily world. I am humbled by the spirit they exhibit.”

His sentiments are echoed by all those who proudly serve as camp counselors.

“The best part is seeing these kids be kids again,” said Beth Ellsworth, a Senior Physical Therapist who works in Parkland’s burn unit. “I see these kids during their hospitalization when they are going through painful treatments as a result of their trauma, and then to see them at camp, well, it’s the best family reunion you could possibly imagine.”

In reminiscing about her 28-year involvement with Camp I-Thonka-Chi, she mentions a former camper now in his 30s who is married with children of his own and volunteers at camp. “That just tells you what an impact camp has on you,” she said. “It means so much that you keep coming back as an adult.”

Since the original camp, which hosted nine campers on a cold March weekend in 1992, hundreds of children have benefitted from what Camp I-Thonka-Chi co-founder Donna Crump describes as a “magical” time.

“Seeing the kids in that environment is special. The kids are able to interact with others who truly know what they are going through back home. They can try new things, share their triumphs and struggles with peers and supportive adults, and have a blast in the great outdoors,” said Crump, a manager in Parkland’s Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation Department.

“As caregivers in the hospital, we can see all the pain they have had to go through. Camp is proof positive that things truly do get better,” she said noting the campers’ “amazing” resiliency. “And all of the adults who give up a week or more away from their families to help ensure the camp runs smoothly truly reaffirms one’s faith in humanity. It is just a magical place like none other.”

Crump’s inspiration for forming Camp I-Thonka-Chi was forged when she learned about a burn camp in Colorado and had the chance to attend with a camper from Texas. After witnessing first-hand the positive effects it had on the young burn survivors, she was hooked and determined to create a similar experience for Parkland’s children with burn injuries.

Asked if there was one memory that stood out over these past three decades, Crump paused and said, “I think one of the most special memories occurred in our early years. One of the campers was a young teenager from a small town who was very shy and all week he hardly said anything, would stand outside the circle if we were playing a game. He slowly warmed up throughout the week and on the last night one of the counselors pulled him out on to the dance floor to join in the fun.

“After we got back home, I got a call from his mom and the first thing she said was, ‘What did you do to my son?!’ I will admit I was a little panicked at first and asked her what she meant exactly,” Crump recalled. “She then replied, ‘he talks, he laughs, he smiles. For two years since his injury, I have not seen this. What did you do in that one week?’ Well, it wasn’t anything that we did. It was the kids, the environment. To me, that is what camp is all about!”

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