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Camp Amigo splashes into Swain County

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Among the people riding on neon tubes bobbing down Deep Creek on Thursday was a large group wearing red shirts with the words, “Healing Their Burns From the Inside,” on the back. 

They were all campers and staff with Camp Amigo, the Children’s Burn Camp of North Florida, and were spending the afternoon at Deep Creek in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park tubing and then enjoying a hot dog cookout prepared by local fire departments including Bryson City Volunteer Fire Department, West Swain Volunteer Fire Department and Alarka Volunteer Fire Department.

It was day 5 of the week-long camp hosted this year at Nantahala Outdoor Center July 15-21. 

Camp Amigo was founded by Rusty Roberts and other members of the Tallahassee Fire Department who attended burn camps hosted by the Southeast Burn Foundation in Florida and were inspired by the idea of having a camp for burn survivors that has a focus on healing and outdoor adventure. 

This year’s camp was the 17th year for the program that matches children burn survivors aged 7-17 with a mentor for a week of camp. Mentors include adult burn survivors, firefighters and nurses. 

About every four years, the program spends the week in North Carolina. This was their second visit to Swain County. Home camp is Billy Jo Rish State Park on Cape San Blas— It’s the only fully handicapped accessible state park in Florida including beach access. Camp Amigo has some participants who are amputees and/or have limited mobility. 

Troy Anzalone, one of the camp founders, said Nantahala Outdoor Center has been accommodating making all kinds of outdoor activities available to the campers. 

The level of enthusiasm was contagious among campers at Deep Creek Thursday. Mid-week through camp, and it was clear that many close friendships had developed with hugs, nicknames and jokes exchanged with ease among the 37 campers, 8 adult burn survivor counselors and other counselors and staff.

Tubing was just one more activity for the campers who had a packed week of outdoor fun.

“I like that you try things you’ve never tried before, and everybody’s nice and it feels good,” said camper Tyrese, 13. 

Diosese, 15, said already that week he got to go ziplining, paddle boarding, canoeing, swimming. 

““We’ve also been learning about surviving in the wilderness, about trees and specific ones for fire and how to make shelters,” he explained. 

Camp isn’t just about having fun and trying new activities, but about being among others who understand and can relate to some of the challenges that the burn survivors have faced. 

On one of the first days of camp, Anzalone said, the adult burn survivors have a group meeting with the campers where they get to “talk about their experiences and recovery that generally they don’t talk about with others. For the younger ones, it’s a chance for them to open up. A lot of times, the emotional scar is more damaging than the physical.”

They continue to have small group meetings throughout the week. 

Many of the children and adults return year after year. 

“Campers come back when they see the commitment others have—it’s very positive,” Anzalone said. “It’s a family atmosphere. We try to give the kids a relaxing time.”

Pam Ramsdell, a firefighter and volunteer, spends most camps cooking for everyone. “For a lot of us, this is our vacation,” she said. 

“I think this camp is an amazing experience for everyone, and I feel like it’s a place where you really grow. It helps knowing there are people who understand you,” said camper Sebastian, 17.

It’s impacting for both the children and adults. Fred, a counselor for the first year, agreed with Sebastian. “It’s a great experience,” Fred said. “People say it’s like a family, and I’ve witnessed that first-hand. This is truly a family, it really feels like big brothers and big sisters. Everyone looks out for everyone else, and we just want to make sure the kids have a good experience and to keep them safe.”

The outdoor camp, which is free to the children, provides opportunities for many of them that would otherwise not be available to them. 

Some campers even say it’s a life changing experience and being able to open up and connect with others who understand the hardships of being a burn survivor are invaluable.

Jarrett, a young adult now, has been involved with the camp for 11 years. 

“Before Camp Amigo, I was a shy kid,” he said. “At camp, I realized I didn’t get burned bad compared to some people—they’ve got strong hearts. I remember, before, I would look at myself in the mirror and think, ‘no one’s going to love me.’ At camp, a lot of people open up here when we don’t talk to other people because we feel at home here.”

Jarrett said having a mentor in camp who himself is a burn survivor provides strength and showed him that you can still go on to do the things you want in life and be a positive influence to others. 

Chabazz, 16, has been involved with Camp Amigo for 7 years. He also returns to camp every year for the inspiration and community. 

“It reminds me of who I am and how others have gone through the same things as me,” he said. “Before, I was into drugs, but camp motivated me to stop. This is like a second family to me.”

To learn more or make a donation, visit campamigo.com. Camp Amigo is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization. 

Smoky Mountain Times

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