Lake Samish camp offers haven for children recovering from burns


Justin Bigelow doesn't often think about the November day in 2002 when his life changed — the day a vehicle fire engulfed him and three of his brothers in flames.

That was then. This is now.

"I just think about the scars," the 15-year-old from Austin, Texas, said. "But I actually don't care about them now."

Now — on a hot August day on the shores of Lake Samish — Bigelow has more important things to be concerned about: camp fires, helicopters, field activities and water sports, just to name a few.

"We went tubing, we went wakeboarding, we were on a slide, we had a ropes course," Bigelow said. "We did Zumba."

Bigelow is one of 35 campers at Camp Phoenix, an annual summer camp for children from across the country who have been burned. The camp is put on by the Burned Children Recovery Foundation, which helps children and their families cope with life after being burned.

"Every child deserves the right to have a full life," founder Michael Mathis said.

Mathis knows all about the trials the children who attend Camp Phoenix go through. In 1967, when he was 11, he was in a fire that left him with burns over 60 percent of his body.

When Mathis was learning to live a post-fire life, he said, there were no organizations to address the emotional issues kids face as they adjust to being victims of fire.

With the experience he's gained, he hopes to help these kids adapt.

About 280,000 children in the United States are burned each year, Mathis said. But the general population isn't aware the number is that high, because many of those kids choose to hide from the stares, the whispers and the pointing.

But not at Camp Phoenix.

"It's unacceptable to allow these children to hide," Mathis said."When you make the choice to hide, nobody wins."

Mathis said he and the camp's staff are there to help the campers reinvent their lives.

"You have to let go of who you were," Mathis said. "That's the hardest part, is letting go."

The purpose of the camp is to help kids feel good about themselves and how they interact with others, including children who haven't been burned.

At Camp Phoenix, the campers learn they're more than just victims.They're survivors.

"Ultimately the goal is to become a thriver," Mathis said.

For 23 years, and in several locations in Northwestern Washington, Camp Phoenix has helped kids thrive.And for 17 of those years, Burlington firefighter Jarrod Powell has been right there with them.

"My heart really goes out to these kids," Powell said."They've been through so much trauma.And they touch your heart when you come out here."

Most days at the camp a different area fire department comes out to play with the kids. On this day, firefighters from Burlington brought an enormous inflatable water slide.

"You don't even see their burns," Powell said."You just see the kids and the smiles on their faces."

Sometimes, Mathis said, the kids forget about the boats and games and everything else, and instead make a beeline straight for the firefighters.

"It's awesome getting to see your heroes," Bigelow said.

A few feet away from where Bigelow and his friends are playing in the sun, local celebrity Ryan Stiles is in the camp's kitchen, preparing a batch of his famous chili. But it's not the comedian who's cracking the jokes in this kitchen.

Austin Souder, a 13-yearold from Odessa,Texas, sneaks some cheddar cheese that Stiles has painstakingly grated for his chili. For several minutes, the two lovingly trade jibes, all the while stirring Stiles' monstrous pot of chili.

Souder has been coming to Camp Phoenix for seven years. Each year, he said, there are kids who are quiet and shy at first.

"When most burned kids are burned they go into a shell and they don't want to talk to people," Souder said.

His hope for the camp is that when the week is over, those kids have more people to talk to and are less scared about showing their scars.

"Me? I think everyone's beautiful," he said."It's just how God made us."

With Mathis' guidance, the more seasoned campers, like Souder and Bigelow, try to help the others come out of their shells.

"I want them to learn not to be shy or scared," Bigelow said."It's OK to be weird. Being weird is cool."

In the past, Camp Phoenix has been at Lake Samish and on Samish Island, but Mathis said they hope to have a new, permanent home a few miles away off of Mount Baker Highway soon.The camp will provide even more space to continue their work changing kids lives.

"These children change you," Mathis said."This program changes you."

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