"You Don't Have to Hide Anything"
updated 07/06/2009 AT 01:00 AM EDT
•originally published 07/06/2009 AT 01:00 AM EDT
But Isaiah soon relaxed. "Me and Braxton started talking to him," says Nick McDonald, 9. Without knowing his bunkmates' stories, Isaiah could tell at a glance that they too had seen terrible days. For once no explanations were necessary. They wouldn't be stared at, and they wouldn't be teased. "I've moved five times because of mean people that my mom didn't want me to be around," says Braxton Czarnecki, 9. Isaiah's mom, Irma, says that sometimes other kids are afraid of him. But by day two at camp, the boys are running as a pack.
For a week each June, young burn survivors ages 6 to 18 enjoy swimming, boating, horseback riding, zip-lining and fishing at Camp I-Thonka-Chi (Choctaw for "place that makes one fearless") in Meridian, Texas. Donna Crump, the physical therapy manager at Dallas's Parkland Hospital, founded the program—which is free, run with the help of volunteers and another camp, which also provides the grounds—in 1992 to serve patients of the pediatric burn ward. "You see so much pain that you want to do more," says Crump, 50. Even when kids are able to leave the hospital, "you know what's ahead of them in a society where so much is placed on looks." Here, they can let all of that go. "We're not any different," a teen once joked to Crump. "We've just got a little texture."
By his last evening, Isaiah has found his place, doing handstands on the dance floor for all to see. Counselor Courtney Bennett, 19, who was burned in a house fire two years ago, looks on. "I just idolize them," she says of the campers. "They've helped me get out of that whole 'I'm not pretty' thing. The people here? They're gorgeous."
For more information, go to www.parklandburncamp.com