Comforting camp: Burn-injured children attend weeklong event

Photo by Kristen Ralph

Photo by Kristen Ralph

WINDER -- Watch out -- the giggle box has been opened.

It's a warning from 9-year-old Jade Benford, one followed by uproarious laughter from her and her new friend Narta.

In the arts and crafts room on the northern side of Fort Yargo State Park, Jade, a home-schooler from Lilburn, romps with Narta and many other fellow campers, carefree.

Here, they're like any other kids at any other day camp -- swimming, painting pictures, riding bikes. Most of the time, there's not a thought about why they're all here, no moments spent dwelling on the reason this week's 81 temporary residents are at Camp Oo-U-La.

But, like her newfound comrades, Jade has a story.

In November, a family trip to the grocery store turned tragic. Jade was caught under a vehicle, resulting in severe burns "mostly all over my body," she says.

"I went under a car and got burned by the engine," she says matter-of-factly. "The hot part."

Wrapping up its 18th year today, Camp Oo-U-La is Georgia's only camp exclusively for burn-injured children, hosted by the Georgia Firefighters Burn Foundation.

The camp is free to any Georgia resident between the ages of seven and 17 who has sustained a burn injury like Jade, or non-residents who have been treated at any Georgia burn center.

This year was the first time away from home for Jade, a bubbly budding actress.

"It's a lot more fun than I expected," she says Thursday. "On Sunday night it was very weird. It was odd to me ... I stood there looking like this (jaw dropped) the whole time."

When she speaks of her accident, it's always to the point, sincere but not somber. She's just stating the facts.

Trapped under the car, the right side of her face was severely burned, as well as "all over both of my legs, all the way up, and then my (right) hip here, and then (my right) arm near my elbow," she says.

She originally spent a week at a burn center in Augusta before weekly visits became the norm.

"It would especially be hard for my mom to talk about it. And my dad," she says, using the same upbeat, irreverent tone she does when she tells you her favorite part about camp is swimming.

Jade's incorrigible enthusiasm despite the changes her life has undergone since her accident, just over six months ago, is in many ways reflective of the goal at Camp Oo-U-La.

It gives the kids (usually about 100 of them) the chance to bond with peers who have gone through what they have -- but it instills something greater.

"Somebody overheard a camper say that they learned that the world doesn't revolve around them," says Dana Dillard, the programs director for GFBF.

"I think they learn that they may have experienced an injury, but at the end of the day everyone has challenges that they're going through. They may have gone through some things a whole lot earlier than most of us have had to, but life is life, and it's going to throw stuff at you."

The 120 or so counselors and volunteers each summer, many former campers, make Camp Oo-U-La something to treasure for these kids, who have gone through experiences most will never have to.

When it wraps up today, it will be with many sad goodbyes.

"It's too much fun," Jade says. "I wish I could stay all the weeks."

Blessing Ezeudu, a three-time camper from Lawrenceville, knows what her favorite part of Camp Oo-U-La is.

"Everything," she says.