Camp Celebrate: Play with a Purpose

Camp Celebrate, a camp for pediatric burn survivors, organized by the North Carolina Jaycee Burn Center, welcomed campers for a weekend of fun and healing.

Camp Celebrate: Play with a Purpose click to enlarge A camper takes aim during archery practice at Camp Celebrate
Camp Celebrate: Play with a Purpose click to enlarge Michele Barr

Words and Photos by Jamie Williams,

For 35 years, Camp Celebrate – the country’s longest running camp for pediatric burn survivors – has started with a swim. Michele Barr, pediatric aftercare coordinator at the North Carolina Jaycee Burn Center, said it’s the first important step in the healing that occurs here.

“Kids who arrive self-conscious about their scars, afraid to take their shirts off or wear a bathing suit, can look around and see others like them,” Barr said. “They don’t have to worry. They are safe here. It’s time to have fun.”

The kids at Camp Celebrate are aged 7-15. Most were treated at the North Carolina Jaycee Burn Center, though the camp is open to all pediatric burn survivors.

During the weekend long camp, participants will canoe, swim, shoot bows and arrows and BB guns. They make friends, overcome fears, gain confidence.

“In burn recovery, healing the physical wounds is sometimes the easy part,” said Anita Fields, burn aftercare program manager. “It’s the emotional scars that can take a lifetime to get over.”

Camper Drew
Drew Richardson
Drew Richardson was burned when he was not quite 2 years old. He has a raised scar on his chest. When he was 9, his mom Linda bought him a soccer jersey. He wouldn’t wear it, she said, because the top of his scar peeked from behind its v-neck collar. Linda remembered a conversation with the nurses who cared for Drew at the Jaycee Burn Center. They encouraged Linda to bring Drew to Camp Celebrate when he was old enough.

He’s now 12 and has been coming to Camp Celebrate for three years. Each year, Linda says he starts asking about camp around Christmas.

“Coming to camp, meeting other kids, and seeing their scars really changed him,” Linda Richardson said. “Now he doesn’t worry about it at all. He thinks his scar is cool.”

Drew likes swimming and has friends from camp he looks forward to seeing every year. He loves the cinnamon rolls they serve for breakfast. “They put a ton of icing on them,” he said.

Defining the Mission

In 1982, recreation therapist Deb Rosenstein attempted to get a few former burn center patients into traditional summer camps. Many camps turned them away, afraid they could not meet their needs. One camp, however, finally offered the burn survivors the opportunity to attend their camp on the condition that Rosenstein accompany them. So she did. And out of that experience, the idea for Camp Celebrate was born.

“In many ways, Camp Celebrate defines what the North Carolina Jaycee Burn Center is all about,” said Bruce Cairns, MD, John Stackhouse Distinguished Professor of Surgery and Director of the North Carolina Jaycee Burn Center. “What we try to do is take a terribly tragic injury that can affect people for their entire lives, and do our best to help them adapt, get back to school, get back to work, and be the people that they want to be.”

That mission, and this camp, Cairns said, has always received great support from across the state.

“The burn center was built by the people of North Carolina,” Cairns said. “This state has always cared about children who have been affected by a horrible injury like burns. To see kids here from communities all across North Carolina is a wonderful affirmation of what we are all about. You just can’t argue with giving these kids the support they need to grow up in a way that ensures this injury does not hold them back.”

A Lasting Partnership

In considering the 35 successful years of Camp Celebrate, both Barr and Fields credit the dedication of firefighters from across North Carolina who help at the camp each year with planning, coordination, even grilling hot dogs for lunch on Saturday. The weekend starts with the fire truck parade, where the campers ride in style from the drop off point at Triangle Town Center Mall to Camp Kanata. Once at camp, there are other activities that allow campers to try on the firefighter’s gear, or just interact with them naturally.

“I’ve heard from firefighters who say after they pull someone from a burning building, they wonder, what happened to that person? This allows them to hear the rest of the story,” Fields said.

Fun and Healing

Even the fun activities have a therapeutic purpose.

The swimming helps campers begin to overcome the self-consciousness they feel about their scars. They make s’mores over a camp fire. Interacting with firefighters at camp can help children see the fire service in a positive light and not just as a part of their traumatic burn experience.

They also learn effective coping strategies for the questions or stares that may come when they return to school or their home communities.

“We help the campers to rehearse their response if someone is bullying or staring,” Fields said. “We want to equip these kids with strategies to use when they go out into a world that is not always accepting of people who are different.”

They then empower older campers and counselors to share these lessons with younger campers. The cycle continues as former campers return as counselors in training and then as full counselors.

It Doesn’t Define You

Paulee Serrett
Paulee Serrett first came to Camp Celebrate as a camper in 1994. She came each year until 2003 when she started college. As she put it, “life happened” and she was away for a few years. But, after moving back to North Carolina, Serrett, a chef in the Wilmington area, came back to Camp Celebrate as a counselor.

“I just always remembered how great I felt when I was here,” Serrett said. “Everything I am now, it all came from being at this camp.”

This year, she brought her husband along to also serve as a counselor and to better understand her story as a burn survivor.

 “From the time we met, my husband has always been incredibly supportive. Now, he’s here with me and able to see the whole story. These kids are where I was, we’re here to help them come as far as I have with my life,” Serrett said.

Her message to the campers is simple: “I tell all of the campers, you can do anything. Your burn does not define you. I’m a chef; I play with fire for a living. You can do anything.”

Lasting Bonds

Avey Walker is a counselor in training. From her position, as an older teen, she can help offer friendship and relatable advice to campers who are closer to her age. She first came to Camp Celebrate last year, after being burned in a cooking accident in 2015.

“Our burns brought us together, but our friendship goes way beyond that,” Walker said. “These are friendships I’ll carry with me,” she said.

Most everyone at Camp Celebrate said they spend the year looking forward to this weekend, that they couldn’t imagine being anywhere else.

“These are people we stay in touch with,” Fields said. “There’s a counselor here today that I cared for as a patient and who texts me every year to wish me a happy Mother’s Day. There’s no money in the world that could take the place of that.”

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