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Scars take a back seat
Winder camp offers burn victims freedom to be themselves

WINDER - Bounding like a kangaroo, Blessing Ezeudu wasn't thinking about the twist of fate four years ago that could have destroyed her life, or at least shredded her self-esteem.

The diminutive girl was winning a potato-sack race. She was ecstatic. The webbed scars cuffing her neck were of minor consequence.

Victim to a kitchen accident that scalded her with boiling water, the 12-year-old Lawrenceville girl knows the sting of being ostracized and ridiculed. She's walked into kid parties before and heard gasps, gossip and this actual sound: "Ewww."

Not at this party.

The middle-schooler joined 100 youngsters this week at Camp Oo-U-La, the state's only summer camp exclusively for burn-injured kids.

Hosted since 1993 by the Georgia Firefighters Burn Foundation, the camp basically overtook a 54-acre spread at Winder's Fort Yargo State Park for six days, morphing the forested grounds into a squirming mix of watersports, pep rallies, talent shows, fireside games and something called the "Wacky Olympics."

Not allowed: Self-pity. Introversion. Condescension.

"You get out of your shell," said Ezeudu of the camp's chief benefit. "Outside, they make comments. (At camp) you don't have to be teased."

Her sentiment seemed to ring true amongst each camper, whose scars ranged from easily concealed blemishes to severe disfiguration.

"It rocks," chirped Fayetteville's Macy Costley, 8, an enthusiastic proponent of the camp's paddle boats.

The festivities were a partnership with Camp Twin Lakes, a not-for-profit organization famous in Georgia for helping youngsters with illnesses and other life challenges. The camp is open to Georgia kids ages 7 to 17 who've been treated at either of the state's two burn units in Atlanta or Augusta.

Camp Oo-U-La - named for the Cherokee Indian word meaning cool, running water (i.e., a primitive cure for burns) - costs participants not one thin dime. Money collected by boot-brandishing firefighters in drives across Georgia helps cover some costs, while Twin Lakes kicks in the rest of the $600 required per kid, said programs director Dana Dillard.

Personnel from as many as 50 fire departments helped pull the camp off, alongside more than 120 full-time volunteers, some zapping their vacation time to attend.

For firefighters, it was a particular treat.

"This is really the only week of the year (campers) get to be themselves, not ashamed of their scars," said Capt. Scott Cagle, Hall County Fire Department. "A lot of firefighters around the state don't get to see that happy or end result of proper burn care. They see them at the scene, they go to the burn center to see them hurt, and that's the last they hear about it."

LaGrange Fire Department Lt. Chris Taylor thought himself fortunate to watch the campers gel.

"It's good to see (them) be kids again," Taylor said, after campers were treated Wednesday to a limo parade through Winder. "Everybody is joined together like a family."

Burgeoning endeavor

The camp began as the brainchild of three DeKalb County firefighters in the early 1990s, who were helped in launching the program by the Joseph M. Still Burn Center in Augusta, said Lt. Keith White, Rockdale Fire Department. What started with a couple dozen kids has blossomed fivefold, he said.

The ubiquitous Virginia Miller - whose "Camp Mom" title dictates that she read bedtime stories and organize basketball games in the same breath - labels the camp among the country's finest. Her barometer is the level of interest and envy shown by camps in other states, and even as far as Canada.

The Camp Mom spins a tale of one camper, now 17, who bashfully reported to Camp Oo-U-La covered in gloves, long sleeves and shaggy hair. By week's end, he frolicked around all but shirtless.

"To see that transition and that level of comfort is one of our main purposes," Miller said.

One camp pioneer, burn survivor Shenetrics Glynn, 20, of Locust Grove, grew attached to the camp as a youngster and is now enrolled as a leader in training. She dreams to open an upscale eatery specializing in desserts called "Glynn's Palace."

Though each customer she'd meet at her hypothetical restaurant would notice her scars, it's hardly a deterrent. Burns or no burns, the camp has shown her the power of a positive outlook.

"My counselor read a poem the other day about us painting ourselves," Glynn recalled. "When we go out in the real world, we tend to paint ourselves because we're afraid of letting people know our true colors.

"In here, we can take that paint off. We're learning it's okay to be different. Whether you have scars or not, everybody's unique."

For more information, visit the Georgia Burn Foundation's Web site at www.gfbf.org.