Special to The Dallas Examiner
Although they won’t be splashing in pools or singing around the campfire together this year, children with burn injuries will be able to gather for a free virtual camping experience hosted by Parkland Health & Hospital System’s Regional Burn Center in conjunction with Camp John Marc.
Camp I-Thonka-Chi – Choctaw for “a place that makes one strong or fearless, not afraid to face life” – is traditionally held during the first full week of June at Camp John Marc near Meridian, Texas. But like many traditions upended by the pandemic, Parkland’s beloved Burn Camp was shifted to an online experience in 2020 and will again be held virtually this year due to COVID-19 safety concerns.
“Our host site for summer camp, Camp John Marc, made the difficult decision that it was in the best interest of the campers that are served to cancel our traditional in-person group camping this summer,” According to Donna Crump, Parkland physical therapy manager and co-founder and director of Camp I-Thonka-Chi.
Instead, Parkland’s dedicated team of Burn Camp volunteers have created a fun-filled schedule of online events June 6-11 for young burn patients ages 6 to 18 with the theme “Camp is More Than a Place.” Activities will include a Game Day, live events broadcast from Camp John Marc, clowns, arts and crafts projects like cake decorating, nature exploration and more. Each child will also receive a ‘camp-in-a-box’ filled with camp logo items, crafts supplies, snacks and other surprises to enjoy during camp week.
Johnson County firefighter and burn survivor Randal Goodwin and his wife Grace have spent hours shopping for supplies and assembling camp boxes in recent weeks, including rounding up balloons and cake decorating supplies the campers will use in classes the couple will lead via video during the virtual camp week.
“I have a really stupid skill,” Goodwin said with his trademark laugh. “I can make 81 different balloon animals. It’s a fun thing to do with the kids at camp. Grace teaches cooking projects including cake decorating that the kids really enjoy.”
Randal and Grace have volunteered as Burn Camp counselors for more than 20 years.
“I’ll do anything I can to help. Parkland Burn Center gave me my life back,” Goodwin said, referring to the months he spent as a burn patient recovering from injuries sustained in the line of duty in 1988. Goodwin lost both legs and required years of surgeries and physical therapy. He now walks with prosthetic legs “decorated with bright yellow and orange fire stickers,” he said.
Volunteering at Camp I-Thonka-Chi proved to be one of the most healing experiences he’s had.
“Emotional wounds can take longer to heal than the physical injuries,” Goodwin said. “Coming to camp with other kids who know what you’ve been through allows them to just be normal and feel accepted. No one’s asking, ‘what’s wrong with your arm’ or ‘how come you don’t have one eye.’ Swimming, canoeing, playing games together – the kids open up and share with one another. It’s a really special place.”
While virtual camp can’t replace the in-person experience, Goodwin says protecting the health of all involved is the right decision.
“We will get through this,” he said confidently.
Margaret Burkett of Yantis said she hasn’t yet told her son Braden, 18, that camp will be virtual this year, but she appreciates all the effort going into creating a virtual camp experience.
“Camp has been unbelievable for Braden,” she said, “he looks forward to it all year long.”
Braden was severely burned at age 23 months, resulting in loss of fingers on both hands and a severe foot injury. He stopped breathing during the incident and had to be revived. Lack of oxygen left him with developmental disabilities. Braden was treated at the Shriner’s Hospital in Galveston and adopted by Margaret as a young child. Through a chance encounter with a burn survivor who volunteers as a counselor at the Burn Camp she learned about the program and her son has been attending for years.
“Braden was always afraid of water,” Burkett said, “but at camp the other kids helped him overcome that. He learns so much from the other kids. Camp I-Thonka-Chi has given us so much. All the staff are like family to Braden.”
Camp John Marc is offering “Family Escape” opportunities at no cost for the families of eight pediatric burn patients to spend a weekend at one of the staff lodges and enjoy camp amenities like fishing, hiking, arts and crafts, sports and games at the 150-acre Bosque County facility. Participants will be asked to comply with CDC COVID-19 guidelines to ensure staff and guest safety.
“This has been a challenging year and both campers and counselors are disappointed that we are missing another chance to gather together this summer,” Crump said. “There is very much a family atmosphere at our camp and with our families. I am hopeful we can resume in-person camping next year.”
Camp I-Thonka-Chi, unlike some other charity programs, is not supported by a national organization. Children can attend for free due to the donations of Parkland employees and area donors. Camp John Marc also helps with fundraising so more children can attend. During the weeklong event campers build friendships, improve social skills and simply have fun without being self-conscious of their scars or injuries.
Established in 1962, the Parkland Burn Center provides care to more than 1,800 patients annually. Serving North Texas and surrounding areas, this comprehensive burn center is one of only 74 verified burn centers in North America and the only one in North Texas and provides all services from emergency treatment to intensive care to rehabilitation and outpatient follow-up care.
For more information and to register, call 214-590-2920 or 1-800-850-1477 or visit https://www.parklandhospital.com/burn-camp.