INGLESIDE – For one week out of the year, the Illinois Fire Safety Alliance hosts a nonprofit camp, I Am Me, for 300-plus children who have been hospitalized for severe burns in Illinois.
Camp I Am Me in Ingleside is a place where young burn survivors can have a chance to feel comfortable in their own skin, have fun with kids who have similar experiences and most importantly be themselves.
“This is my third year coming to I Am Me,” said camper Julie Carzoli, 10. “I love it because I get to see my friends again and the activities they have are really fun.”
The Crystal Lake resident said her favorite camp activity is archery.
It is something she had never done before attending I Am Me, but has loved it since trying it at camp.
Julie was severely burned when she was 8 years old when she accidentally spilled a hot bowl of soup onto her lap. Her burns start on her stomach and extend to her hip.
The smiling and bubbly little girl said she definitely wants to come back next summer.
Camp I Am Me does not benefit only the campers – it also is rewarding for the many volunteers.
“I was here the very first year they had the annual camp I Am Me in 1991,” said Randy Ahlgrim, a camp volunteer from the Addison Fire Department. “I was at a conference in Galena, Ill., and they were talking about starting something for kids who had been severely burned.”
At first, Ahlgrim was nervous about volunteering at the camp, but now he says he does not notice the scars.
“They’re just regular kids,” he said.
The camp helps the children with their self-esteem and provides them with a safe and nonthreatening environment where they can be normal kids, Ahlgrim said.
“This camp gives me a good perspective of things,” Ahlgrim said. “I used to be a paramedic, and I would see burn victims for 20 minutes in the ambulance. This gives me a chance to see the survivors after the fact.”
For many of the campers, this will be the only week they will feel confident enough to wear a swimsuit. The emotional impact the camp has on the kids is wonderful, he added.
The camp tries to find kids by going to hospitals, social services and rehabilitation facilities. The camp takes kids between the ages of 8 and 16 and will give older individuals a chance to become camp counselors.
I Am Me includes activities such as a parade of fire trucks from all parts of Illinois, a fun fair, swimming and much more. The camp also provides a 24-hour medical staff, social workers and provides campers with physical therapy, if needed. There is also a large focus on fire safety.
Camp I Am Me is funded through donations at no cost to the kids. The camp provides free transportation and will buy campers anything they may need for their weeklong stay, he said.
“The staff here at camp are volunteers who are taking a week away from their families or using up their paid vacation days. We currently have 67 weeklong volunteers,” Ahlgrim said.
I Am Me used to be called simply “burn camp,” but about 10 years ago, a camper suggested changing the name to I Am Me because it was a place where the kids could just be themselves. “Burn camp” was not something they wanted to talk about, Ahlgrim said.
“We have kids who have been burned in many different ways,” Ahlgrim said with tears welling up in his eyes. “Scalding is most common. However, 10 to 15 percent of campers burns are due to child neglect or child abuse. So many of these kids’ burns were preventable, so that is why we push education on fire safety.”
“It would be great to ultimately put ourselves out of business,” Ahlgrim added. “We want kids being severely burned to stop, and we are trying to accomplish just that by spreading awareness and fire safety, and by giving those kids who were burned a place to be themselves.”