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Camp's healing spirit soothes burn survivors

Published June 7, 2007


TAMPA -- Once a year, no one stares.

For the 38 kids at Camp Hopetake, a summer camp for burn survivors, this week is a chance to break out the tank tops and wear bathing suits without fear.

At Hopetake, no one cares about the scars that twist along their arms or backs, the legacies of dropped cooking pots, errant fireworks and careless campfires.

Members of Tampa Fire Rescue and Tampa General Hospital's burn unit run the weeklong program, which is based in Ellenton in Manatee County and is free for children ages 4-17 who survived burns.

The firefighters take the kids out on field trips each day -- to Adventure Island on Wednesday, to the beach, to Cypress Gardens -- and arrange evening activities for them. The last night of camp, which they spend putting together a scrapbook, is the toughest, Tampa firefighter Capt. Brian Mintzer said. "The tears start," he said.

For 12-year-old Celina Rosales, the camp is a place where "Your friends understand what you've gone through.

"I was like, 'Cool.'"

When she was 2, Rosales, now of Tampa, knocked over a pot of boiling water while playing near the stove with her then 3-year-old brother. The water scalded the left side of Rosales' body. She was in a hospital for two weeks after her most recent surgery, in 2004.

Capt. Robert Barnett, who helped found the program in 1990, says the camp is a chance to give back to kids, some of whom the firefighters remember having rescued from house fires.

Tim Huddelson, 17, has been coming to the camp ever since a relative put him a bathtub of scalding water 12 years ago. His legs, back and hands are covered in faded scars, and he says that even people who are 18, nearly adults, sometimes smirk at him.

"I say to them, 'Hey, if you had this, would you want me to stare at you?,'" he said. "They usually shut up and go away."

Most of the campers each year are returning, giving younger kids a chance to learn from older ones, Mintzer said. Some years, though not this one, they have kids show up at camp still bandaged up from injuries.

Mintzer said the firefighters union raises funds each year for the program, which costs about $44,000 to run. The firefighters pay for the week's accommodations at a conference center in Ellenton, as well as for buses each day and tickets to field trips. The firefighters stopped fundraising through phone solicitation in 2002 after complaints from Tampa area residents. They now rely on private donations and creative fundraising ideas, such as motorcycle rides.

One private donation this year came from Jeremy Halpern, 13, who raised $8, 000 for the camp in memory of a neighbor, Estelle Versaggi, who died in 2006 of burns suffered in a plane crash.

Sarah Mishkin can be reached at or (813) 225 3110.

[Last modified June 7, 2007, 01:25:55]

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