WINDER — The young, new arrivals to the summer camp with the Native American name that evokes "cool water" can be shy at first.
With bandages or special sleeves covering their arms and legs, and sunglasses and hoods or hats pulled down over their heads, some try to conceal the scars left by traumatic burns. It’s instinctive in a childhood culture than can be cruel.
But by the end of the weeklong camp with fellow burn survivors, most have rolled up their sleeves and ditched their hoods, hats and sunglasses, happy to be themselves.
Young burn injury survivors come to Camp Oo-U-La to connect, cope and just have fun.
"I realize we’re not going to take away the pain," said the foundation’s executive director, Dennis Gardin, himself a survivor of severe burns suffered as a teenager. "It may not make it easier on them, but we like to think they walk away a little stronger."
When Hall County’s firefighters take to the streets once a year to "pass the boot" for the Georgia Firefighters Burn Foundation, much of the money goes toward this camp, relocated this year to Fort Yargo State Park in Winder. Burn Foundation funds pay all expenses for every camper at an estimated cost of $600 per child. The camp is available for any child ages 7 to 17 who is treated at a Georgia burn center.
Last year, Hall County raised $47,000 for the burn foundation, the fifth-highest amount raised by any fire department in the state. The foundation also pays for fire prevention and education programs and provides financial support for Georgia’s two burn centers in Atlanta and Augusta.
More than 100 firefighters, paramedics and nurses who volunteer at the summer camp go to see the smiles of children who they knew before only as badly injured fire victims or hospital patients.
"Often times we went on calls, would make a rescue, load them into the back of an ambulance, then wouldn’t know the outcome," said Don Williams, who founded the burn foundation some 20 years ago with fellow DeKalb County firefighters. "We always were wondering: How did they do? Did they live or die? We wanted to do more to follow up."
The first camp for burn survivors was held in 1993 with about 20 campers. This year, there are 79. In recent years, as many as 100 campers have attended.
Activities include rope courses, paddle boats, kayaking and fishing. Thursday was prom night, with kids who might not otherwise have a prom date tooling around town in style in stretch limousines before heading to the big dance. Friday, campers gathered in the cafeteria for a pinewood derby.
Teenage twins Brandon and James Strain of Flowery Branch first came to the summer camp in 1999 as scarred and bandaged 6-year-olds.
The Strain brothers spent weeks in Grady Memorial Hospital’s burn unit from injuries suffered as 5-year-olds when a car shock inside a fire pit exploded. Brandon Strain suffered third-degree burns over 85 percent of his body. A decade later, many of the severe scars have faded with age, though the skin on Brandon’s legs still shows obvious signs of trauma.
"It was cool to know you weren’t the only person in this situation," James Strain said. "We had all been through the same thing and knew what it was like."
Said Brandon Strain, "It’s very therapeutic to come here. We tell each other what happened to us, and talking about our experiences makes us grow together as a family."
The Strain brothers, now 16, have grown into the role of mentors for younger burn victims, and look forward to coming back to the camp as counselors in the years to come.
"I’m never going to stop coming," Brandon Strain said. "I would say the worst experience of my life turned out to be the best."