If you were a blog reader here over this past summer, you know about the outstanding impact my volunteering at Champ Camp for the Alisa Ann Ruch Burn Foundation had on me. A world-class camp for kids who are burn survivors, Champ Camp draws the most amazing people—campers and volunteers alike. As a counselor for my cabin of “Rancheros” (8-10 year-olds) I really won the volunteer lottery—I was over the moon for those kids—I still am. The volunteers at camp are some of the most dedicated I’ve known, and there is a very organized system of leadership. The unit leader of our Ranchero age group (my direct boss, I suppose) was Xena, aka Kirky Kirkendall. I didn’t know her name then—we all exclusively use our camp names—I am Monkey—and many of us will never learn the actual names of others, even after years of working together.
Next summer, Xena will step into a larger role at camp, and become one of two Camp Directors, meaning the buck stops here. We’ll be lucky having her as one of the Queen Bees…and honestly, I wish every one of you could meet her and hang out with her and have her crack you up for a week…but until you come volunteer with us at Camp (or other volunteer activities with the foundation), you can meet Xena this way:
Tell me a little bit about what you will be doing at Champ Camp 2014 (Not as opposed to previous years, but in general, for readers who are unaware of the program) and your history at camp. How did you first get involved?
Burn survivors are affected both psychologically and physically by the injuries that they endure. Many of the survivors are very young and are burned as a result of an accident of some kind. These youth then have to adapt to an entire new persona. Burns at any age can be traumatic due to the physical changes and adaptations which need to happen. For those that are burned at a young age, however, the physical and “natural” difficulties of growing up become that much more difficult.
I became acutely aware of these difficulties in 2009 as my nephew (he was 17 at the time) became a burn survivor when he was electrocuted. He thought there was a brush fire and was going to try to help put it out, but it was actually a downed power line. His chest caught on fire and a volt went through his body. He was changed forever! He would always be nervous and stressed somehow by power lines and his skin would always have issues and need different surgeries. It is amazing how important skin is to our self-perception, self-worth, and confidence. To this day he is having to re-create himself, as so many youths are doing….
This is what compelled me to be involved in Champ Camp through the Alisa Ann Ruch Burn Foundation, a summer camp for any youth between 5-16 that has been treated for burns in California. This camp creates an opportunity for youth to play and be, for one week at least, “normal”, without scars, to play confidently, and laugh. I started to volunteer in this experience as a counselor four years ago and will transition this year humbly to be a director of this camp with Jeeter (who is a co-director with me) with 80 other of my dearest friends who also volunteer. (More after the jump)
Volunteers are, critically speaking, the backbone of Champ Camp through AARBF. Throughout the year leading up to camp, volunteers work diligently to raise money for the foundation (by even growing a mustache—we are currently in the middle of “Grow Your Stache for Cash”—a fun-raiser for AARBF—check it out and donate), attending smaller events to encourage the youth, and to plan the Champ Camp event. Beginning in October, much of the planning begins in coordination with the foundation to begin the process. A call goes out for new volunteers and old alike and many, such as myself, begin to think about the costumes that we will need. Why costumes, you ask? Well, dressing up at camp is a cornerstone of what we do. It is as if each youth gets to, for one week, pretend to be Superman, an evil villain, or a princess, for this is what childhood is really all about!
The key to success at camp really is the 80 or so volunteers who take time out of their busy schedules to help each of these kids have a blast! Many are paramedics, moms, and engineers that were touched in some way, as I was, by burns. Some are even burn survivors themselves who attended camp and can say firsthand what a life-changing experience they had!
It is this amazing village of caring volunteers that touches lives each June!
What obstacles along the way have almost stopped you in service work/volunteering?
I think that volunteering and service really has to become a way of life. I have tried to make it such in mine, at least. Each time that I volunteer it is really important to me to put my all into it. I love to talk to people about changes that I have seen in people’s lives and how I have been touched by the experiences. Back in 2007, I participated in the AIDS ride to raise awareness for HIV and this disease that is preventable. We rode our bikes from San Francisco to LA and it was such an awesome experience that I volunteered for three years raising money and awareness!
This is the same philosophy that I use for volunteering for AARBF so that I can get support and accountability in my efforts. I feel that my main obstacles of time, work, and motivation are subverted due to this accountability!
When taking on a big ol’ volunteer project, have family and friends supported you or have they thought you were nuts?
I must have a crazy family since absolutely no one has questioned my taking on this role as director of Champ Camp, they have only been supportive! Thank God!
Did your youth/upbringing/family life seem to put you on this path, or did you come to it later? What were you doing before this? Did you forge your own path or are you shaping your world along the same lines as a family member, mentor, etc?
I do believe that my family has greatly influenced me to make a difference in everything I choose to do. First and foremost are the examples of my Mom and Dad. My Dad showed me how to really listen to people and try to meet them where they are, and try to help them be a better person. My Mom worked as a teacher and then continued working with Weight Watchers to really try to help people take charge of their lives through nutrition and exercise. I believe that our family motto ought really to be “Now get out there and DO something for someone, meet them wherever you can!”
I must come back to my last statement in noting that I really believe that EVERYONE can do something to help the other. I really think what holds people back is the fear of being uncomfortable. There will be discomfort, yes, but when we all push through this feeling of discomfort there is an amazing feeling of JOY and CONFIDENCE!
While there won’t ever be a standard, what is an example of a particular day/session like for a camp volunteer?
Each cabin at camp is like a miniature tribe within a larger village! Each volunteer acts as a guide for the tribe in helping to lead them to the greatest possible day. There are community meals and different activities but at the very core is a loving hand to guide them. At any point, for instance, during go-carts or high-ropes, a youth might experience the stress of not wanting to go further–at which point the counselor may need to decide whether or not to push further or let it go. It is this meeting a child wherever they are at camp that is the most powerful change-agent. The best day at camp may begin with a crisis but end in the best day EVER. Each counselor creates this experience for the child.
Is there an ideal volunteer for you? What skills, in an ideal world, would someone bring to camp?
The most important quality for a counselor, hands down, is that of emotional intelligence. This is the ability to “read’ the emotions of a child and feel his/her way through what to say!
If not this, what might you be doing?
I would be (and still might be) working with the organization Outward Bound in leading outdoor experiences for youth that are looking for development in leadership and growth.
What has been the best reward for the work you do?
There are so many great memories and stories! One young lady, let’s call her Sasha, came to camp as a ten year old. She and her brother (age 5) had been burned in Nigeria in a massive bus fire where one of her family members had perished from burns. It was amazing to watch her at camp because you could tell that she was not used to it! She was not used to having to listen to the counselors or even the rules. She pushed another girl in line and, when I asked her why, said that she was trying to get a fly off of the girl! How could I not smile? This simple childhood example reminded me that these children, though burned and having had traumatic experiences, were still just innocent children! I smile even now when I think about that!!!
As a child my Mom had a bad back. Her back would go out and she would be bedridden for weeks at a time. My brother and I would help her during this time with whatever she needed. We would play on the court for hours on end and then also need to help my Mom, which I gladly did! It was a great childhood because I experienced the un-conditional love of GIVING!
After World Peace, I will swing into a mountain lake on a rope swing, then climb Mount Whitney!