On a balmy April morning 21 years ago in south Florida, Kathleen Powell calmly boarded a hot air balloon for an unusual outing with three friends. The 37-year-old was recently single. She had just started a new job and was also training to become a hot air balloon pilot. She’d come down from New York for vacation. Life was good!
Kathleen remembers the peace and joy of floating above the lush greenery and palm trees. She also noticed it was windy — more so than usual. She recalls the pilot unconcernedly saying, “We’ll find another spot to land,” when gusts forced them to miss their planned put-down at Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport.
Within minutes, her life changed forever. While descending to an empty lot, the balloon basket got snagged on power lines. A heavy gust tipped the basket over and the metal uprights touched a wire.
“Suddenly, I saw a three-foot arc of electricity shoot through the air,” Kathleen said. “I thought I was being electrocuted. Warmth ran up my legs. When I looked down I realized my pants were on fire. My sneakers were melting. But I never registered pain.”
The capable pilot managed to free the basket and land next to a fitness center, a hive of activity in that early morning hour. Staff and exercisers rushed out to help. Ambulance sirens wailed.
Because the EMTs didn’t realize the severity of her burns, Kathleen was taken to a general hospital nearby. Within hours, however, doctors recognized the scope of her injuries: 35% of her body was charred with second and third degree burns. Her pain was excruciating.
“The next day I was flown by air ambulance to the Burn Center at Cornell Medical Center in New York City,” Kathleen says. That marked the beginning of an arduous three-year recuperation, during which she received more than 400 inches of skin graft and underwent a dozen surgeries.
Last week when Kathleen and I sat in her sunny home in Palm City, Florida, I marveled at her insuppressible resilience and spirit. She admitted she’d “Hailed Mary” countless times during the accident and lengthy recovery. “But though the accident was terrible and threw my life off course for quite awhile, it also led me to wonderful places I would never have found otherwise,” she said.
One of those wonderful places is the Arthur C. Luf Children’s Burn Camp in Union, Connecticut. Kathleen alternates between calling it “burn camp” and “Brigadoon,” and it’s apparently both. “The camp is near and dear to my heart and I feel blessed to be able to volunteer there. This summer will be my 21st year as a counsellor.”
Every summer for one week in July, 70 children aged eight to 18 arrive at this rustic Boy Scout camp on 176 wooded acres. They are all burn survivors, many bearing profound emotional and physical scars. They come for free from across the United States, some as far away as the Ukraine, Honduras and Ireland.
The camp is run and managed by 100 heroic volunteers, all of whom are firemen, nurses, EMTs and burn professionals. Kathleen said, “I read about the camp in ‘Parade’ magazine 20 years ago and immediately called up to ask what I could do."
“I’ve learned that you shouldn’t go through
life with a catcher’s mitt on both hands. You
need to be able to throw something back.”
Like many summer camps, the day begins with flag raising and singing the national anthem. Then it’s on to activities intentionally designed to build self-esteem, restore trust, stoke confidence, foster camaraderie and just have fun. The kids fish, swim, go boating and master rope courses.
“No matter how badly they are injured,” Kathleen says, “you see them laughing and playing. You can’t help but admire their spirit and courage.”
But in many ways, this camp is unlike many others. An observer last year noted, “There’s a danger in getting overheated for burn victims whose compromised skin can’t properly regulate body temperatures. So drinking water, cold showers, spraying stations and fans are placed near every activity.”
“The volunteer firemen are amazing and do just about anything for the kids,” Kathleen says. “A child without digits wanted to try archery, so a firefighter built a special tripod that enabled her to trigger the bow just by pressing a button.”
I was surprised to learn that every evening the campers gather around a fire to cook s’mores, tell stories and sing Taps. I asked, “Aren’t they afraid of being close to the fire?”
“Survivors are okay with a fire in its place,” Kathleen said. “What’s camp without a camp fire?”
What would this camp be without big-hearted people like Kathleen and the countless unselfish volunteers who make “burn camp” one of the happiest spots on Earth? I’m in awe.
For more information about the Arthur C. Luf Children’s Burn Camp, or to help in any way, email: firstname.lastname@example.org; or telephone: 203-878-6744