West Penn Burn Camp gives children the chance to forget their burn scars

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Krashimir “Crash” Kaercher was 12 years old when he lit a pile of garbage on fire. When it wouldn’t burn fast enough, he added gasoline. The 2001 explosion landed him in a bed at the West Penn Hospital Burn Center, and the next summer, at its burn camp.

Thirteen years later, Mr. Kaercher, 25, of Beaver Falls, repels from the highest platform at the camp’s ropes course. His booming voice and kind eyes heckle fellow counselors and encourage timid campers to try the zip line.

This week marks the West Penn Burn Camp’s 28th year. Each June, around 30 children between the ages of 7 and 17 gather free of charge at Camp Kon-O-Kwee in the Fombell section of Franklin in Beaver County. They scamper up the climbing wall, have cookouts, and sleep outside. The thing that distinguishes this group of campers is that each child has sustained burns severe enough for admittance to the West Penn Burn Center.

“Camp does a number of things,” said Linda Leonard, co-founder. “We teach kids to take positive risks. It’s a safe place where kids can talk about their scars and experiences. They don’t have to worry about being judged or questioned. We started burn camp because parents said their kids wouldn’t go to the pool or park [because of their scars] ... they needed a place to be normal.”

Staffed partially by child psychology graduate students, the program’s activities are primarily outdoors. They include challenge courses, canoeing, and a hike on “the trail of courage.” The program reinforces team and trust building, engineered to combat the emotional trauma often accompanying a burn.

And it’s done in the outdoors as much as possible. One young boy, with scars covering his face and neck, enthusiastically echoed, “we’re only inside when we sleep.”

When Dr. Ariel Aballay arrived at the ropes course, he was immediately tackled. “By the time they get here, these kids have undergone years of therapy,” said the West Penn Burn Center’s medical director, with a camper on each arm. “This week is just fun, a great opportunity to be with other people who understand.”

Mr. Kaercher is one who understands. He is among many burn victims who found solace at West Penn Burn Center’s annual summer camp and who return every summer. Mr. Kaercher dubs his role “a privilege.”

The relationships forged on the grounds of Camp Kon-O-Kwee last far longer than the week. A Facebook group connects the community, allowing older, recovered burn victims to offer support to younger kids. In January, a countdown to camp begins.

“We all started here together,” Mr. Kaercher said, gesturing to a few other men in their mid-20s. Nick Pryor, 26, of Clarion, added, “this is something we do every summer. It’s just fun.”

Even as adults, Mr. Kaercher and Mr. Pryor credit burn camp with giving them the strength to tolerate the stares. “We feel better about going home,” Mr. Pryor said. “Camp is somewhere you go where you don’t feel deformed.”

“I came up here to be with family,” Mr. Kaercher affirmed.

Nothing illustrates that familiarity better than Johnna, 11, who runs to Mrs. Leonard with tears in her eyes. The zip line had gotten the best of the camper, and she wasn’t able to go down. “You tried, that’s all that matters,“ Mrs. Leonard said, hugging her.

For Mr. Kaercher, burn camp strikes the balance between rest and healing. When asked if he plans on future involvement, he immediately answered, ‘‘without a doubt.”

“Here, nobody stares. It’s a week of freedom.”

Emma S. Brown: ebrown@post-gazette.com.

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