Campers and state firefighters form a special bond throughout the five-day camp.
For what seemed liked the 100th consecutive day of rain in Charleston, the “Camp Can Do” Tuesday morning schedule at St. Christopher was interrupted. The 35 campers participating in outdoor festivities ran for shelter when the next perpetual batch of showers rolled through.
The children, ages 6-17, didn't seem to mind. Smiles didn't fade. Laughter didn't subside.
I pouted. I tried to look for the Space Needle, because surely this must be Seattle.
The campers' attitudes, ones of resiliency, were a minority throughout Charleston. I suppose they're used to being different from the majority.
Camp Can Do is a week-long experience for burn-injured child victims. They played in a mud pit, went kayaking, tried their luck at fishing and went to the Seabrook Island beach every day.
It's a chance for them to let their guards down. “The first day, they're shy,” said counselor and former camper Kelsey Normandin. “But, by the second day, they're sharing their stories and having a great time.”
Normandin, 20, was severely burned on her upper right arm, chest and underneath her chin when she was 2 years old. She said she was trying to get Ramen Noodles out of a pot of hot water. Normandin had six surgeries in 10 days at the Medical University of South Carolina.
Understandably, she remembers nothing of the ordeal. She attended Camp Can Do annually until she reached the cut-off age.
Then she became a counselor. Now, she's making plans to attend MUSC Nursing School. “It definitely gives kids a sense of comfort knowing that they don't have to hide anything,” Normandin said. “They talk to each other about their stories. I know I used to feel (self conscious). Coming here really helped.”
When you're young, being different is considered a path not worth traveling. Kids can be brutal. Some of the campers had visible scars and others didn't. Let's clear up any disagreements right now: they're all beautiful.
Wendell and Clarissa Lesueur, brother and sister counselors, are like Normandin. They both were campers years ago. Wendell was part of the first year's group in 1997. Clarissa came in 2003.
At 9 years old, Wendell threw a gas can on a fire pile in an accident that left his face burned and his younger sister's right arm and right side of her stomach burned. “She used to be afraid of fireworks,” he said. “Now, she's good.”
This is the first year both have returned to Camp Can Do as counselors. Wendell lives in Fayetteville, N.C. but said he hopes to make this an annual visit to help with the camp. “With me being burned on my face, I was shy because I felt out of place more than anything,” he said. “But at the same time, I just felt like this is a place where you can have fun. Everything is taken care of.”
Clarissa expressed similar sentiments. “It's called Camp Can Do to let kids know they can do anything they put their minds to,” she said. “They're not singled out, because everybody here is burned.”
The Lesueurs had other motivation to make a difference. Firefighters from all over the state also assist Camp Can Do and develop personal relationships with the kids. Louis Mulkey, one of the fallen firefighters from Charleston 9, became close with the Lesueurs. Mulkey was a Summerville High School assistant football and basketball coach.
“Even outside of camp, we stayed in touch,” Wendell said. “I wanted to come back and be that role model.”
He paused for a second. Firefighters ate ice cream with campers less than 20 feet away. “Just like he was to me,” he finished.
Campers attend the five-day camp at no charge. You can't put a price tag on smiles anyway. Funds are provided by the MUSC Children's Hospital Burned Children's Fund. The firefighters, counselors, MUSC Children's Hospital staff – they're all volunteers.
“Most of all,” Clarissa said, “it's fun to see them smiling all the time. That's really rewarding.”