IFSA PHOTO
The Illinois Fire Safety Alliance’s free Camp I Am Me offers child burn survivors a place to have fun, and at the same time talk about their experience in a judgment-free environment, with the help of counselors and even other campers.

Lombard resident has been a volunteer since the beginning

By Jane Charmelo

As many as 50 children have been looking forward to attending the annual Camp I Am Me (this year from June 19-25), to be held at the YMCA’s Camp Duncan in Ingleside, Illinois, located near the Wisconsin border.
Hosted by the Illinois Fire Safety Alliance (IFSA), the annual free summer camp serves children ages 8-20 who have been affected by burn injuries, according to IFSA Executive Director Philip Zaleski.
The nonprofit organization, formed in 1982, “was around before burn camps became popular,” he explained, adding that in the late 1980s, “burn camps started popping up.”
The Illinois Fire Safety Alliance IFSA serves to inform the public on fire safety and burn prevention, and provide public education.
After learning more about how the camps operate, the IFSA started its own camp in 1991, the director said.
He described in a news release that the children have been burned by scalding water, chemicals, fire or electricity, and the goal of the camp is “to have a camping experience in a judgment-free environment with others who have gone through similar experiences.”
He added that the IFSA coordinates with hospital burn units, the Illinois State Fire Marshal’s Office and fire departments around Illinois.
Campers participate in the typical camping experience, Zaleski outlined, such as horseback riding, swimming and archery. They have counselors and social workers, and there are medical professionals on-site to care for any health-related needs.
The volunteers “give up an entire week of their lives,” the director noted.
One of the counselors is Randy Ahlgrim, who has volunteered since the beginning. A former Addison Fire Department firefighter/paramedic, he is now the fire department’s public education officer.
“I’ve been involved in public education and fire safety for many, many years,” Ahlgrim, a Lombard resident, said, so it seemed natural that he would become a camp volunteer.
In part, the officer wanted to “see the other side,” meaning that as a firefighter/paramedic, “I have a patient 15-20 minutes [and] follow-up is one thing most [responders] never see.”
However, Ahlgrim shared, when first volunteering, “I was kind of scared,” not knowing what to expect, reiterating that he typically did not see what happened to his patients after they were transported to the hospital.
Being with the campers 24/7, he continued, “Initially I had to hide my feelings.”
However, he came to realize through his interactions with the campers, “They’re just kids. They want to be accepted. They want to be loved.”
Camp I Am Me is “a safe space,” for the burn survivors, some of whom have endured multiple surgeries, Ahlgrim said.
Beyond the activities, the camp allows the children to share their stories, their experiences and their feelings, both Zaleski and Ahlgrim emphasized, whether non-verbally through art activities or in conversation.
The campers get support from the counselors, some of whom are former campers themselves, Ahlgrim described, adding that his role is now as an officer of the day, monitoring the campers’ schedules.
The activities “are very healing for them,” Ahlgrim observed. “They’re learning how to accept themselves.”
“They’re not afraid to tell their story,” he added, mentioning that the campers often keep a journal that they bring back with them to camp each year.
“Through character development, journaling and therapeutic sessions that help build self-esteem, the children are able to take advantage of unique resources often not available in their hometowns,” Zaleski said.
The campers also keep in touch outside of camp, the director said, “to continue those relationships across the entire state and beyond.”
Zaleski said the camp was put on hold in 2020, and resumed on a limited basis in 2021, so everyone is “really excited to get back to normal.”
For Ahlgrim, the years of volunteering have allowed him to watch the children grow up, and “I see the change in the kids’ lives. It’s a monumental week.”
He said he has learned a lot from the campers, which helps him as a public education officer, adding that while some of the campers have healed on the outside, there is still the trauma of the experience and even survivor’s guilt, so “They have to heal on the inside.”
“Behind the burn there’s another story,” added Ahlgrim.
Camp I Am Me becomes like a second family, and he said the kids look at the calendar asking, “When can I go back to camp?”
Ahlgrim—after volunteering for so many years and hearing so many stories of survival and healing—said he lost all that initial uncertainty.
In a short time, “There was nothing to hide anymore,” he summed up about his feelings.
The IFSA has also launched an online support group for adult burn survivors and for parents/caregivers of survivors, which “has been better than any one of us could imagine,” Zaleski said. “We’re going to continue it.”
Visit IFSA.org for more information.

 

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