If you’ve ever bought one of my books, A) you’re awesome, and B) you may have noticed a little note at the front that says $1 from every book sold will go to the Washington State Council of Firefighters Burn Foundation. They sponsor Camp Eyabsut, a week long summer camp for burn survivors from ages 7 to 17.
Over the last 17 years, this camp has become an irreplaceable part of my life. This sounds cliché (and I really don’t give a shit because it’s true), but I started volunteering there thinking I was going to help them, but they ended up helping me break out of my shell and become the person I was meant to be.
I REALLY hope this doesn’t come off as “Look how great I am,” because that is not the intention. I’m pretty proud about it, but the intention is to open up a bit about my experience and give a little peek into this writer’s otherwise boring life. I don’t know if anyone out there really wants to know who I am, but if they do, they can’t possibly know without knowing about this.
I was never one to volunteer for anything, but one day, shortly after I started working as a firefighter, I saw a commercial about kids with burns and it absolutely broke my heart. Back in those days I didn’t cry for anything, but this commercial brought out the old waterworks. My new wife and I decided to donate a small amount of money every month to the local burn foundation, and for about six months I considered my good deed done.
Then they emailed me, saying that they were in desperate need of male volunteers for that year’s camp. I did not want to do it, but they were persistent, and I broke down and went, terrified by the idea.
Let me digress for a moment and address the question that almost always comes up when I talk about burn camp: isn’t it hard to see kids with burns? That was a question I asked myself before going that first year. Would I be able to handle it? Or would I break down in tears and make things even worse for them?
The answer, thankfully, was no. I found that, after an initial shock, I fell right into seeing them for what they were; just kids. They were kids, no different from any other, besides a few scars. This revelation changed my whole perspective on the experience, but it was just the first of many life-changing revelations.
Not that all of it has been smooth sailing since then. In the last 17 years I have kind of gained a reputation as the irresponsible one. I’m a “cabin leader,” but I often push the edges of being demoted. I would never compromise the kids’ safety, but I have been known to bend the rules in the name of fun.
More than once, we have become lost on hikes. Not like “Oh my God, how will we survive?” type lost, but more, “Uh…Kyle, this is a neighborhood in the closest town” type of lost.
I once allowed the kids to make water balloon pets they named Mr. Jibbles. And the biggest of the Jibbles family burst inside the cabin, threatening water damage and the burn foundation’s deposit.
My cabin is NEVER the cleanest, and we have been known to be late for scheduled activities.
But my proudest rule-breaking moment had to do with a newly formed couple on the last night of camp one year. A girl and a boy, both 16, wanted to say goodnight to each other, privately, for a few minutes. I said, “Yeah, no problem.” They were outside, just behind the camp bulletin board, and there was no way things were going to get too crazy between them.
But when the people in charge found out that I let that happen, they were very unhappy.
“You cannot let that kind of thing happen!” they said.
“We absolutely cannot have a kid going home pregnant from here.”
“I agree, but we’re just talking about a first kiss.”
The girl half of the couple had been burned on approximately 80% of her body, including her face. I could clearly see that she was beautiful, inside and out, but I had a feeling that the teenage boys back where she was from probably weren’t emotionally mature enough to see such things yet. And here she was, having a moment EVERY kid deserves to have if they want it. It was a hill I was willing to die on. And even though they were pissed, they let me stay.
The great news is that the girl in the story is now a young woman, who is married to that boy she met at burn camp!
That’s the kind of thing that makes camp rewarding. I have seen a hundred kids come to camp for their first time, wearing hoodies with the hood up in summer, hiding their burns and their faces. And then see those same kids laughing and playing in the pool with their cabin mates, without a care in the world, by day 3. Being around others who are like them is essential to their acceptance of their burns, and that’s what camp is ultimately about.
My proudest moment at camp probably came one night at campfire when the older kids were telling their “stories.” One of the boys I had known since he was about 7 was talking about his experience at camp and my name came up. I was shocked, because, especially in the early years, I was kind of quiet, and I didn’t think I was anything more than a cog in the wheel that kept camp moving. But this kid said, in front of everyone, that a conversation he had with me when he was 10 changed his whole outlook on life for the better. I won’t get into the details, but I’ll just say that my eyes were wet that night.
But it’s not all rainbows and butterflies. These are kids who often have very tough lives, and come from some pretty tough situations. Sometimes the kids hate you for imposing rules and setting expectations for them. There have been a few times over the years when I’ve had to be a part of kicking a kid out of camp for the year. Those were some sad years. Bawling is an understatement when describing me after those incidents.
Anyway, I feel like I’ve rambled on. The thing I’d like to leave you with is a subtle nudge to get out there and do something outside of your comfort zone. I would have never seen myself doing this, but one small moment of bravery has led to a lifetime of rewards. I have met people through camp who are lifelong friends, and I have gained an unquantifiable amount of life experience (I feel like raising my own kids was made much easier by the experience I gained through camp). I don’t think you’ll regret doing it.
Eyabsut (To Rise Above Anything),
P.S. If you’re interested in donating, or if you live in the PNW and think you might want to volunteer, go to campeyabsut.org
P.S.S. On my upcoming trilogy, I will be donating 10% of the proceeds, regardless of format, to this...