by Amanda Cuda
Photos: Christian Abraham / Hearst Connecticut Media
BRIDGEPORT — When is a water slide not just a water slide? When it’s being used by children who have survived severe burns.
For those kids, the simple act of wearing swim trunks without a shirt or climbing up a ladder to use a slide is a tremendous act of bravery, said Steve Lupinacci, director of the Arthur C. Luf Children’s Burn Camp [pictured above]. The camp, which takes place during the summer on 176 acres in the northern Connecticut town of Union, allows children 8 to 18 who have suffered life-threatening burn injuries to engage in a variety of activities from water slides to archery to theater.
“The camp instills in them that their injuries don’t define who they are and what they can do,” said Lupinacci, a retired Stratford firefighter and executive director of the Connecticut Firefighters Charitable Foundation.
Lupinacci spoke Wednesday during Bridgeport Hospital’s “Issues in Trauma Care” conference at the Bridgeport Holiday Inn. The topic of this year’s conference was “The Trauma of Burns,” and Lupinacci was part of a panel focusing on burn aftercare. Others on the panel included Eric LaBonte, a physical therapist at Bridgeport Hospital’s Connecticut Burn Center, the only dedicated burn care facility in the state. The center treats nearly 200 inpatients and receives more than 1,000 outpatient visits each year.
LaBonte said recovering from burn injuries is a painful and difficult process, both physically and emotionally. One major hurdle he faces as a therapist is getting patients to move as soon as possible, which is crucial to preventing contracture — a shortening and hardening of muscles or other tissues that can permanently limit movement. Sometimes, tough love is needed, LaBonte said.
“The word ‘can’t’ is the only word that’s not allowed in therapy,” he said. “Just because it did not happen today, doesn’t mean it won’t happen tomorrow or the next day.”
Lupinacci agreed, and said discouraging “can’ts” is a huge part of the burn camp. Campers are quick to point out they “can’t” do something — ranging from shooting a bow and arrow to feeding themselves — because of their injuries. But, Lupinacci said, camp staff often find a way they can do that impossible task, such as building a gadget that allows a child with missing arms to “hold” an archery bow.
The program started in 1991 and drew 32 campers. At the most recent camp, which took place in July, 68 campers attended.
As a retired firefighter, Lupinacci said he has long known the toll burns take on victims of all ages. But for years there was little support available to them outside of the hospital. To help fill that gap, in 1999, the Stratford firefighters created the Stratford Professional Firefighters Association, which has since changed its name to the Connecticut Firefighters Charitable Foundation.
In addition to helping with the burn camp, the foundation is involved with peer support programs for adults, community education and other efforts. The foundation also spearheaded efforts to raise money to add a family suite to the Connecticut Burn Center, where family members of burn victims can stay while their loved ones are hospitalized. The suite was added as part of the burn center’s $1.5 million renovation in 2012.
Lupinacci said, as much as he loved being a firefighter, being a part of supporting burn survivors and their families has been more rewarding.
“My job as a firefighter was just a springboard to what I’m doing now,” he said.
WATERBURY, CT – Waterbury firefighter Bill D’Occhio has been training for weeks. “The gym five days a week; a lot of spinning,” he said. He’s also been schlepping to Bethlehem where farmer and Bethlehem V.F.D. chief Jon O’Neill has allowed him to ride his off-road bikes “twice a week” on pasture land.
Next week, D’Occhio will be in California to ride motorcycles in the 2017 World Police & Fire Games. Some 10,000 athletes representing law enforcement and fire companies from 70+ countries will compete in Los Angeles in more than 60 events.
D’Occhio will take two bikes with him. “I’m driving out there. They’re going in my truck,” he said, explaining that a Husqvarna FC450 will be used for motocross (two 20-minute races) and a Husqvarna TC250 will be used for the GP event (one 45-minute cross-country race).
Practice is scheduled for Aug. 14 with the motocross on Aug. 15 and the GP on Aug. 16 at Glen Helen Raceway in San Bernardino, Calif.
D’Occhio, 44, grew up riding dirt bikes. His father, Cosimo “Doc” D’Occhio, started Doc’s Motorcycles Parts in Waterbury. His brother, Mike, now runs the business. He raced for 20 years but not as much lately. “I’ve been off and on racing. I haven’t been able to take it very seriously,” he said.
But now he’s found a reason to get more serious. D’Occhio’s tackling the games to raise money for the Arthur C. Luf Children’s Burn Camp in Union. The camp is free for kids 8 to 18 who have suffered life-altering burns and scars. “It’s important these kids get the extra emotional and self-confidence support so they can get things back to normal. The burn camp addresses those needs,” he said.
As an 18-year firefighter, D’Occhio has witnessed the impact of fire. “You see the kids and you just feel so bad for the kids,” he said, adding that it’s natural for someone like himself to reach out and help burn victims. “As firemen, it’s important to be out in the community. You’re part of the community.”
D’Occhio said his quest has the support of the Waterbury Fire Department and his union, Local 1339 of the International Association of Fire Fighters.
He has also lined up a bunch of sponsors, who have pledged to donate a minimum of $100 up to $500 each, depending on how he finishes, for the camp. They include Global Machine Brokers, Durable Radiator, Atlantic Star Trailers, Roost Powersports, Labco School of Dental Assisting, The Gowans-Knight Co. and Doc’s Motorcycle Parts.
A GoFundMe site has already raised $1,500 to cover his expenses and he plans to make up the rest of his estimated $3,000 cost. All business and other donations will go to the camp and its burn victims. Anyone else who would like to donate may email D’Occhio at firstname.lastname@example.org.
D’Occhio served in the U.S. Marine Corps from 1993 to 1997 and was stationed at Camp Pendleton, so he has a lot of experience riding in southern California. “I’m familiar with the type of dirt that’s out there. I think I’ll remember how it was,” he said.
He certainly has a lofty goal for the games. “If I don’t make top three, I’ll be disappointed,” said D’Occhio, who plans to record videos of his races and post them on YouTube upon his return.
(Originally published in the “Republican-American” on July 29, 2017.)
By Claire Galvin, Chronicle Staff Writer
STORRS/UNION – For children suffering or recovering from horrible burns, enjoying traditional summer camp activities can be nearly impossible.
However, at the Arthur C. Luf Children’s Burn Camp in Union, one of two camps of its kind in the Northeast, child burn survivors are able to swim, boat, hike, fish and practice archery without fear or judgment.
And thanks to two University of Connecticut nursing students, the campers’ journeys toward an enjoyable summer were made that much easier.
Jill Newall of Stratford and Amber Ruan of Durham, nursing students in the UConn School of Nursing’s (CEIN/BS) program, volunteered their time for the week-long camp earlier this month.
There, they helped the medical team and aided with traditional camp activities.
“We were able to see how these children’s self-esteem blossomed through the week,” Ryan, a 26-year-old, said. “There is nothing these children can’t do when they put their minds toward it.”
The camp welcomed about 70 children ages 8-18 with life-altering burns from around the country.
The entire staff are volunteers who are nurses, medical care professionals, firefighters and emergency medical services staff.
“We were so excited for the women to get the experience at the camp,” the director of the CEIN/BS program, Nancy Manister, said. “Burn survivors are such a special group of patients that our students do not usually observe in the hospital. We cannot say enough about the women and their efforts.”
The experience was part of their pediatrics’ course.
Instead of spending time in a hospital, the nursing program was able to develop this partnership, Manister said.
“The camp was a different kind of life than we’ve been learning,” Ryan said. “Most of the camper were fully healed, but they had many scars, both emotionally and physically.”
Ryan and Newall helped with stomach aches, bug bits, bandaging, home-sickness, cuts, scrapes, lice checks and medication organization.
Both women said they would like to volunteer next year and directors of the camp said they would be thrilled to have them.
“The hardest part of the week was saying goodbye to the campers and to the staff,” 24-year-old Newall said. “Everyone was crying on the last day. They are such an accepting family.”
The CEIN/BS program is a fifth-year program.
Students enter with a bachelor’s degree in another concentration, such as Newall’s bachelor’s degree in biology and Ryan’s bachelor’s degree in psychology.
They graduate after the year with a certificate and bachelor’s degree in nursing.
The Arthur C. Luf Children’s Burn Camp, which began in 1991, is located on 176 acres in Union, which is on the Massachusetts line near Sturbridge, Mass.
All the children attend free of charge because all expenses are paid for through the foundation.
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.”
WFSB Channel 3’s feature on the Arthur C. Luf Children’s Burn Camp:
To donate to support the Children’s Burn Camp, please click here!