On Saturday, Dec. 15, Moyers Corners Fire Department Station No. 1 opened its doors to a different kind of crowd.
In addition to the usual crew of firefighters and first responders, several burn survivors and their families also came to the station in order to enjoy the holiday celebration of the Burn Foundation of CNY, to which the department volunteered to play host.
Jim Ennis, a former Syracuse firefighter, is chairman of the Burn Foundation.
“Today is our sixth annual holiday party,” Ennis said. “This is a time when the kids come in and get to see each other. You’d be surprised by how close-knit this group of kids are because of their commonality, that being their burns. Our people look forward to it. It’s an opportunity to see the smiles on their faces. That’s our Christmas — their smiles.”
The Burn Foundation of CNY officially got its start two years ago, when it broke away from an umbrella organization in Rochester. The move was made at the request of the medical staff at the Clark Burn Center at Upstate Medical University, Ennis said, who found that the larger organization wasn’t meeting the needs of the local community. With their help, several area fire service personnel created a 501(c)3 nonprofit, and the Burn Foundation of CNY was born.
That said, the all-volunteer Burn Foundation had a presence in Central New York for quite some time before it officially came into existence. Under the auspices of the Rochester organization, the group carried out a variety of activities that it continues to this day.
Regardless of the name or of who heads the organization, its mission remains the same: to support those who have suffered burns and to help them recover, both physically and emotionally.
“The things that we do are to support burn survivors, regardless of age, from infants up through adults,” Ennis said. “There [are] a lot of emotional scars that we don’t see [that] we know these children endure. [We try to do] anything we can do to help eliminate or relieve those scars.”
In addition to the holiday party, the Burn Foundation holds a number of events throughout the year to support its mission. Some, like the annual Burn Run hosted by the East Syracuse Fire Department — which has become one of the premiere running events in Central New York and has grown exponentially since its start in 2006 — are fundraisers for the Clark Burn Center, while others, like a Halloween gathering and other outings held throughout the year, are meant to bring young burn survivors together for a good time. In addition, the foundation provides money for hotel rooms and incidental expenses for out-of-town families with a loved one undergoing treatment at the burn center, and they send burn survivors and medical personnel to seminars and retreats to learn more about burn care and burn prevention.
But by far, the Burn Foundation’s largest annual activity is its Burn Camp, held every summer. The overnight camp allows burn survivors ages 6 to 16 to spend four days enjoying the typical summer camp experience — arts and crafts, swimming, sports, games and more — among their peers, without fear of judgment or ridicule. They also spend time with nurses, social workers, firefighters and adult burn survivors, learning to build a stronger self-image. The cost of the camp is paid for by donations to the Burn Foundation, so no child has to fund his or her attendance.
Ennis recalled his first experience from Burn Camp about a decade ago.
“At that time, the kids used to get picked up for summer Burn Camp right at the hospital,” he said. “Nine or 10 years ago, the hospital was undergoing major renovations, so they asked our chief of fire at the time if the kids could get picked up and dropped off at Syracuse Fire Station No. 1 right up the street, and our chief agreed. I went in there expecting that this is going to be pretty somber, that these kids are going to be pretty introverted and shy because of their disfigurements and burns.”
Ennis was in for a surprise right from the first day.
“I walked in the back door, and we’ve got a big heavy rescue truck back there, and this kid comes running out the back of the truck with one of our guys’ rescue helmets on his head,” he recalled. “And this kid’s blind. He can’t see anything. He looks like a little bobblehead. Then the kid jumps back in the truck and puts on one of the guys’ gloves, and they look like boxing mitts on this kid. This was the furthest from what I ever expected.”
From then on, at Ennis’ request, dropoff and pickup for camp took place at the fire station. In addition, the station initiated a breakfast for the campers to kick off the week, a tradition that continues today and draws in a number of off-duty firefighters to help with the cooking.
“Once you experience it, you’re bit, to see what it does for these kids who’ve already suffered so much,” Ennis said.
Indeed, Burn Camp, he said, has helped connect children to others like them and draw them out of their shells. He recalled another young survivor impacted by her experience at camp, this time with the help of three older campers he referred to as “The Three Musketeers,” a group of girls who’d see each other once a year at camp and bond like the best of friends.
“Four years ago, we had a lady who showed up with her little 9- or 10-year-old daughter,” Ennis said. “I went to the Three Musketeers, and I said to them, ‘Ladies, would you do me a favor? It’s this little girl’s first time here. She doesn’t know anyone. Would you make her feel welcome?’ Beyond their years, these three kids jumped up, they ran over — ‘Hi, I’m Emily,’ ‘I’m Marilyn,’ ‘I’m Kathy,’ and this little girl runs off with these three 15-year-old kids.”
It seems like a typical tale, but it’s not.
“The mom pulls me outside and literally collapses on my shoulder,” Ennis said. “She said since the girl was burned, her husband, the girl’s father, walked out on them because he couldn’t handle the day-to-day stresses of burn care and seeing his daughter like that. Her daughter comes home from school every day in tears because the other kids torment her. She said it’s the first day since her daughter was burned that she left her mom’s side. Stories like that are why we do what we do.”
Indeed, while the foundation serves survivors of all ages, Ennis said it’s the kids that benefit the most from what they provide.
“We’re helping these children to become productive adults,” he said, “to get beyond their burns and their disfigurement and realize they’re not alone in the world and that people are there to help them and encourage them.”
Donations, which are tax-deductible, can be sent to the Burn Foundation of CNY, P.O. Box 11277, Syracuse, NY 13218-1277. For more information, visit burnfoundationofcny.org or find them at Facebook.com/burnfoundationofcny.
Sarah Hall is the editor of the Eagle Star-Review and the Baldwinsville Messenger. The 2012 winner of the Syracuse Press Club's Selwyn Kershaw Professional Standards Award, she has been with Eagle Newspapers since 2006. She is a Liverpool native.