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Camp I Am Me a safe haven for burn victims

GiannHernandez North Chicago climbs wooden tower during I Am Me camp for burn victims.  Hernandez her mother were burned

Gianna Hernandez of North Chicago, climbs a wooden tower during the I Am Me camp for burn victims. Hernandez and her mother were burned when a semi-truck collided with their car, and fuel was ignited. | Ruthie Hauge ~ Sun-Times Media

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About IFSA

Through donations from IFSA sponsors, campers are able to attend the camp at no cost to their families. It costs the IFSA around $2,500 per child for the week.

Some of the sponsors include: Bucks For Burn Camp, Illinois Burn Prevention Association, Berwyn Firefighters Put Out the Flames/Light the Lamp for Burn Camp, Law Ware Shedd Murphy Foundation, JC Restorations, Volkswagen Credit, Guns and Hoses, Steamfitters Local 439, Canon Business Solutions, Terrence Hoyle Memorial Golf Outing, Tom Lutzow Family, Rock Bottom Brewery – Craftworks Foundation, Axemen of Illinois MC, Libertyville Sunrise Rotary, National Fire Sprinkler Association – Northern Illinois Chapter, 100 MPH Club, John & Anne Lichner Foundation, Volunteer Fireman’s Insurance Services Midwest, and numerous individual fire departments fund-raisers, 1-800-Board Up and the Fire Service of Illinois.

For more information, contact Illinois Fire Safety Alliance, P.O. Box 911, Mount Prospect, Ill. 60056-0911; call (800) 634-0911; email; or visit the website at

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Updated: August 20, 2013 2:29AM

Alex Cartwright points to the place where the lightning bolt exited near his ankle.

“I still drag my feet,” said Cartwright, 14, of Morrison, Ill., recounting how he was struck by lightning while walking home from school. But today, he is working at jogging ahead of other campers on the trail at Camp I Am Me hosted by YMCA Camp Duncan in Ingleside.

Also known as the Illinois Fire Safety Alliance’s free burn camp, it’s a place for children ages 8 to 16 who have suffered burns from fires or other calamities like being struck by lightning.

“I like the climbing tower and archery and the fair,” said Cartwright.

Dennis Bryar, 36, has known Cartwright for a few years, this marking his 14th season as a camp volunteer.

“When lightning hits you, it messes with your motor skills. The first year he came to camp, he needed braces to walk,” said Bryar. “This year he’s walking and running and got to the top of the climbing tower. That’s incredible.”

Bryar learned about the camp after his best friend, Manny Gonzalez, burned 80 percent of his body whiletraining with the United States Marine Corps.

Bryar seems to have found a calling at the camp. “If I had one week of vacation and could go anywhere in the world, I would take this hands down. It’s just a special place,” he said.

This is the 23rd annual camp that aims to build self esteem among the young burn survivors by providing a non-judgmental environment where children can participate in camp activities with other children who have had similar experiences, said Mary Werderitch, IFSA executive director.

The alliance is a non-profit organization dedicated to fire and burn prevention through public education.

She said more than 300 children are hospitalized for burns in Illinois each year. The most common types of burns are scalds, chemicals, and flame. Scalds are the leading cause of the burns.

The camp counselors consist of about 60 volunteer firefighters, teachers, nurses, doctors, social workers, physical therapists, and child-life specialists, many from local hospital burn units, such as Loyola Medical Center and University of Chicago Medical Center. The one-week camp is free for all the burn victims.

“Some of the activities children participate in include journaling, playing sports, horseback riding, crafting, fishing, pool parties, swimming lessons, a day long carnival and much more,” she said.

Gianna Hernandez, 10, smiled easily after she scrambled up the climbing wall. The young North Chicago resident seemed relaxed and she was happy she had made it up the climbing wall “about half way” before coming back down. She has come a long way since she and her mother, Gloria Garcia, were involved in an accident on the Edens Expressway in April where both were burned after their vehicle collided with a a semi-tractor trailer.

“It hit us on my side and it was dragging us for a long time. The tire mark was about 500 feet,” she said. When it finally stopped, their windshield popped out and a fire burned both mother and daughter.

A number of the burn victims or their friends go on to become camp counselors themselves and on Wednesday, June 19, when the camp is opened to media and family members for a parade of fire trucks, young men and women, some with visible scars on their neck or hands, confidently directed people where to go.

Hernandez said she liked the horseback riding the best so far and she joked about it. “I thought I rode a horse before, but it was just a pony. When I saw these horses, they were big,” she said with a laugh. This is why the kids keep coming back.

“It’s fun here so I won’t be lonely at home,” she said, “All the other campers in my house always cheer me up,” she said of the six other children that share her cabin.

John Sundquist, 13, of Round Lake Beach has been coming to camp for four years. He was burned when he was just a baby in a crib. “My father (John) came in and got me out,” he said of the incident.

“It most likely was an electrical fire,” he said. Sundquist had a message for other burn victims who might not know about the camp.

“I’d tell them to look into it and you should go. It’s very cool,” he said.

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