By Lisa DiLullo for the Milford Mirror
Around the curve in the tree-lined road, into the dirt driveway, past the tan sign, around the barn and up the shady path is a place where love lives.
It’s 176 acres of peaceful quiet, occasionally interrupted by a squeal, or laughter, or young voices muffled by the lush tree canopy.
This is the Arthur C. Luf Children’s Burn Camp in Union, Conn., a place familiar to Milford firefighters Jason Dombrowski and Jason Hall. They are among more than 100 volunteers who travel each year to this upstate place, igniting it with love for dozens of children.
The children here are all burn survivors. Ranging in age from 8 to 18, they bear emotional and physical scars, which can be profound. But here, they are enriched by a week-long camping experience designed to safely suit their very special needs.
It’s a fortunate visitor, like me, who gets to witness the campers’ beauty, energy and spirit.
The Children’s Burn Camp is an initiative of the Milford-based Connecticut Burns Care Foundation. For the last 26 years, the camp has been made possible by volunteers from three main sectors: off-duty firefighters from departments throughout New England, New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Washington, DC, and Victoria, British Columbia; a medical team of professionals from leading burn centers in the northeast; and adult burn survivors, many of whom are alumni of the Children’s Burn Camp.
One alumni volunteer is Handel Dixon, originally from Jamaica and now living in Boston.
“I love everything about the camp,” said Dixon, who was trained as a counselor after graduating as a camper. “Every activity helps build confidence in the kids. And a lot of them are lucky enough to come back year after year to see their friends.”
All campers attend free of charge. This year’s campers come from throughout the United States, and as far as Ukraine, Honduras and Ireland.
They experience a special program with ample chance to build self-esteem, camaraderie and self-confidence through self-discovery. This year, the 70 campers enjoyed activities like fishing, archery, boating, swimming, hiking, arts and crafts, paintball, and a challenging ropes course.
On the ropes course, I met rising sixth-grader Mason Hicks of New Jersey. He was breathless as he finished first a 30-foot-high cargo net climb, and then a walk halfway across a suspended rope bridge. Throughout both, he was securely harnessed, safety hoisted and constantly monitored by a crew of specially certified firefighter volunteers.
“The cargo net was fine, but the bridge was really scary,” Mason said, adding that he loves the Children’s Burns Camp for the many activities he gets to try.
Like many campers, Mason brings extra challenges to each event. Burns savaged most of the muscles in Mason’s tiny legs. His injuries leave him without use of his hands. But secure in his safety harness, Mason climbed the cargo net by curling his forearms around the rope and then cramming his sneakers into netting below.
Volunteers are always looking to help campers safely push through fear and overcome challenges.
For example, when Mason was new to camp, he was still challenged to eat without hands. So volunteer Jim DiGregory of Washington, D.C., created a device with attached eating utensils that would fit the ends of Mason’s forearms and allow him to eat comfortably.
At the archery event, more of this kind of thoughtful accommodation was evident.
Teenaged camper Brandon Martinez of Boston, whose physical injuries included the loss of an arm, tossed back his shaggy bangs and launched an arrow from a quiver attached to homemade tripod. The tripod, designed by volunteers, allowed Brandon to participate where otherwise he might have been resigned to watching.
Brandon, by the way, claimed a first-place trophy in the group archery competition.
Throughout each camping day, Brandon and other campers move in groups from activity to activity. Overnight, campers are grouped for sleeping by age and sex. Each campsite is staffed with trained volunteers; on duty 24 hours each day are a social worker and trained medical staff.
The attentiveness to medical issues was obvious everywhere, but especially so the paintball area. For their safety, campers there dressed in long-sleeved protective clothing and safety masks. As they darted from positions of cover with their paintball guns, campers were carefully monitored, mainly for signs of overheating.
The danger is overheating is high for burn victims, whose compromised skin cannot properly regulate body temperature. So drinking water, cold showers, spraying stations and fans are placed in every activity, particularly one like paintball.
Camper Jolie Araujo, from Brewster, New York, was resting from paintball when she offered her view of the camp. She was outgoing, and clearly comfortable in the camp setting.
“Everyone here is so good,” Jolie said. “It’s a safe place. I wish it was two or three weeks long, instead of just one! It might take a little for some of us to get here, but it’s so worth the trip.”
It seems the volunteers agree. Whether they live nearby or not, most volunteers are in it for the long haul. Camp Director Steve Lupinacci, a retired Stratford firefighter, has volunteered at the camp since its inception. Kathleen Powell, an attorney, is a 20-year volunteer, despite the fact that she relocated to Florida several years ago.
“I keep coming back,” Powell said. “I love these children. This truly is a family.”