Pediatric burn survivors often struggle to feel comfortable in their own skin. Many are afraid to let their scars be seen, so they cover up during the hot summer months to avoid questions, stares and bullying.
"This is a population of kids who usually are living life kind of as loners," said Dr. Tracee Short, Baton Rouge General Regional Burn Center medical director. "They’re usually covering up scars. People are always asking, or poking or trying to touch."
Short saw these children were in dire need of a community where they could learn to love their skin again and not feel so alone.
Camp Catahoula, named after Louisiana's speckled state dog, has provided that space. The camp is a collaborative effort of volunteers from Baton Rouge General and local first responders like the Baton Rouge Fire Department.
In light of the coronavirus pandemic, this year's camp has gone virtual, though it didn't start out that way.
Short said that, while pediatric burn survivors were always taken to a camp during her tenure at the hospital, she worried the camp wasn't meeting the specific needs of these kids. Camp Catahoula was founded last year as an answer to this problem, focusing on specific things she felt burn survivors needed.
The hospital took 42 pediatric burn survivors between the ages of 5 and 18 to a wooded camp retreat in rural Mississippi, with 22 counselors to chaperone. Half of these counselors are pediatric burn survivors who have now become adults, Short said.
Now, the kids could actually have fun during the summer months with people who had similar experiences to them.
"They can go around in a bathing suit without a cover up, without wearing leggings, without wearing long sleeves," Short said. "And not being inundated with: What happened? Why do you look like that? What’s wrong?"
The camp also taught the kids supervised kitchen skills because many pediatric burn survivors were injured in kitchen accidents. One 13-year-old wasn't even allowed to heat up their own food because their family was so worried about keeping them safe.
Short said last year's camp was such a success that, even as the pandemic raged on, she didn't want to sacrifice the bonds the kids had formed by canceling the event. Instead, she decided to go virtual.
Kids were told to come pick up a box filled with supplies to take home for the week's activities. The kit included arts and crafts, materials for the in-kitchen demonstration and a gift card for families to purchase anything that couldn't be handed over in the box.
Since Baton Rouge General serves burn victims in roughly a 250 square mile radius, some organizers traveled to New Iberia and Opelousas to deliver boxes. One was shipped to Wyoming for a patient who had relocated.
Using Zoom, the days began with meditation and yoga, followed by lectures on skin care and managing money. They did snack prep in the kitchen, where siblings and parents participated. At night, they turned out the lights in their rooms and held up flashlights while they told campfire stories.
At three points during the week, the kids were able to see each other in a socially distant way.
Short said that, apart from fun activities, the camp provides kids with the chance to talk to someone else who understands their situation. She said one night a participant wouldn't turn on her camera because she had been crying so much; her friends had been teasing her over her scars and talking behind her back.
"This gives them that community of kids who know what they’re going through," Short said. "When someone says that someone is making fun of them, you now have a teenager, who has been through it, who can offer up those key words of advice.”