On Sept. 24 at Arlington County Fire Department's Station #5, more than 40 young burn survivors from across the U.S. and Canada did what kids do best: they played.
On a rock wall, on a line of Harley Davidsons brought and supervised by a group of local riders — even on trucks like the ones that helped save their lives.
The International Association of Fire Fighter's (IAFF) Children's Burn Camp is a week of sightseeing and public awareness that, for the past 11 years, has begun with a cook-out in an Arlington County station house.
"This is our big kickoff for the week," said Pat Morrison, director of the Department of Occupational Health and Safety for IAFF, and a retired Fairfax County fire fighter.
PARTICIPATING camps send one child and one counselor — acting as chaperone — to the District for a series of events, including breakfast at the Capitol, a wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Solider and a tour of the White House.
Rachel Mooney, a 16-year-old representing the Mid-Atlantic Camp in Harrisonburg, Va said she had been looking forward to the trip for a long time.
"I packed a week early," said Mooney. "I’m serious."
At age 7, Mooney was lying in a hospital bed in Khumasi, Ghana, when she was found and adopted by a missionary from Bel Air, Md. A malaria-induced seizure had caused Mooney to fall into a fire in her family’s home. However, at the cook-out, Mooney was more interested in the living history lesson she was receiving than recounting her difficult recovery.
“When you learn about history at school, it's boring. But this morning we looked at the Declaration [of Independence] and the Constitution,“ Mooney said. “It's more exciting to see it.”
That excitement was shared by Mooney’s counselor Matt Tobia, a fire captain in Anne Arundel, Md.
“I’m the lucky one here,” said Tobia. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
While the cook-out was meant to provide a fun distraction for the kids, it also served as a reminder to the dozens of area fire fighters in attendance that what they do gives people hope.
Chuck Cake, a 15-year veteran of Arlington County, explained how little interaction fire fighters have with burn survivors.
“After you treat a patient, you usually never see them again,” Cake said. “They enter your life for a very short period of time.”
Seeing the results of the fires he helps to extinguish, Cake couldn’t help but think of what happens next for the burn survivors.
“Survival is everything,” Cake said. “But then there’s surviving the survival. There’s a life after but you have to learn to adapt. The changes these kids have been through ... a lot of doors shut.”
SERVING TO REMIND the kids of their own possibilities in life was Dave Borowski, director of the Flicker of Hope Foundation and an executive at Freddie Mac. When Borowski was 6 weeks old, an electrical fire left him with second-and-third degree burns over most of his body. His parents were told he might not live.
“Everything these kids have been through, I’ve lived it,” Borowski said. “Hearing people yell ‘Hey no hands’ or ‘Hey monster.’”
Borowski began Flicker of Hope in 1995 to provide college scholarships to burn survivors. Last year Borowski’s foundation handed out eight scholarships totaling $22,500. At the cook-out, he used his own experience as a burn survivor to send a message to kids who, like him, often found themselves at the receiving end of a cruel taunt.
“Everybody in their life has scars whether on the inside or outside,” said Borowski. “Bigotry, ignorance; these are a lot harder to get over than burn scars.”