From left, Leah Culkar, burn survivor, Kim Poling, burn survivor and Leah’s camp buddy, along with Irene Gaccek, Tampa Bay regional coordinator for the Children’s Burn Foundation, share a moment of fun during a bonfire at the last burn camp.
PINELLAS COUNTY – Leah Culkar, 10, watched as colorful fireworks lit up the 2001 Fourth of July night. An innocent bystander, the fourth grader at Leila Davis Elementary winced when a wayward fireworks mortar landed on her.
She was burned over 20 percent of her body with first, second and third degree damage. Leah’s injuries required a skin graft on her arm and other reparative surgeries.
Like hundreds of children surviving burn injuries, Leah had her work cut out for her. But she wasn’t alone. The annual Children’s Burn Foundation camp has served as an important stage in her recovery for the last two years.
“Leah loves the camp,” said mom, Rebecca Culkar. “She is interested in the other kids and their stories. She has a lot of compassion for the other kids and is not put off by people who may look different.”
Leah’s kind outlook has transferred to her everyday life, too.
At the burn camp, each child is matched with a buddy, and Leah’s pal is Kim Poling, 18. Poling, a burn survivor herself, skated into hot asphalt on a street in her neighborhood. She was severely burned on her left arm, right hand and stomach.
“Leah is crazy about Kim,” said Culkar. “She is a great example of not letting a burn injury stop you from going after your dreams.”
Poling is still pursuing her lifelong dream of becoming a ballerina.
“The bonds formed between buddies at the Children’s Burn Foundation camp are quite strong,” said Irene Gaccek, Tampa Bay regional coordinator for that organization and fire inspector for Madeira Beach. “They know what other kids are going through. The burn survivors often come back and be buddies for younger children.”
That’s because at the Elks Youth Camp in Umatilla, near Ocala, burn survivors between the ages of 6 and 16 get a rare opportunity to meet and learn with others like themselves. This camping area is more than 400 acres of good, outside fun that comes alive the second week in November every year when the burn camp ramps up.
This unique camp is a place where burned children can develop new friendships and realize that they are not alone in their experiences. The youngsters also develop new skills, a sense of identity, self-confidence and a taste of independence.
“The camp is really a weekend of interaction with other children who are burned to varying degrees,” said Gaccek.
Although Gaccek obviously has a good deal of affection for the campers, she doesn’t cut them any slack either.
“They call me Queen Irene,” she said about insisting the children take showers and pick up their clothes. “Sometimes people ignore them or over-help them. So we work hard to treat them like regular kids.”
Leah’s mom gives a lot of credit for the children’s success to Gaccek.
“Irene is such a powerful force for these kids and the camp,” said Culkar. “She has a ‘can-do’ attitude and makes sure the individual kids have what they need to enjoy camp to the fullest.”
Tracking down young burn survivors
Gaccek’s first step is to get young burn survivors signed up for the special camp. She contacts local burn units, hospitals, the Shriners and other referral sources to get names.
“You would be surprised how the word about our burn camp gets around,” said Gaccek.
These children are often in various stages of recovery, some are required to wear pressure garments, some are in wheelchairs and some are still receiving physical therapy or may be awaiting reconstructive surgery.
Like the relationship between Poling and Leah, each child gets paired with a burn buddy who is usually a firefighter, nurse, physical therapist or friend who is familiar with the child and his or her situation. The burn buddy serves as a one-on-one support system through the weekend and often times into the future.
“The buddies get as much from the experience as the children do,” said Gaccek.
Gaccek became passionate about the foundation about 12 years ago when a child from Sarasota needed a female buddy at the camp.
“We are still very dear friends,” she said. “I am very proud of all my kids from camp. These kids are truly survivors and are down to earth. They have the same problems and questions as other kids.”
Survivor theme adds fun, excitement
Last year, the camp took its theme from the television series “Survivor,” but of course, no one was voted off the island. But contests and competitions were certainly part of the fun along with themed T-shirts.
“I even ate a chocolate grub,” said Gaccek. “It tasted like a Kit-Kat bar.”
More than 50 children from all over the state attended along with buddies, cooks and coaches bringing the total number of participants to 300.
“We are so grateful to the Children’s Burn Foundation and Irene for the camp and Leah’s opportunity to attend and experience it,” said Culkar.
Children take part in a variety of activities such as swimming, archery, arts and crafts, canoeing, rappelling and dancing to a live D.J. The camp also includes special guests, many of whom have also suffered traumatic burn injuries.
“These kids have lived through fire, they can do anything,” said Gaccek.
Community continues to help
The children are invited at no cost to their families after being referred by places like fire departments and the Shriners Hospital. The St. Petersburg Northeast Exchange Club is a significant supporter.
“Every year they consistently raise money for the organization,” said Gaccek. “I can’t thank them enough.”
Local groups, like the Clearwater Fire Department, pitch in with donations like goodie bags loaded with beach towels and personal items. But every year the organization still must raise $800 for a bus to transport the children and even more for new sleeping bags.
Anyone interested in learning more about the Children’s Burn Foundation, recommending a young burn survivor for the camp or wanting to support the foundation is welcome to call Gaccek at 391-3400 or send her an e-mail at email@example.com.