State firefighters adopt area burn camp

Published 12:00 am Monday, July 16, 2001

Ten-year-old Ashton Beck of Utica gets a piggy-back ride from counselor Carter Hill Friday during free time for the campers. Hill is assistant chief of Ridgeland Fire Department and works part time in Jackson as a fire safety educator specialist.(The Vicksburg Post/MELANIE DUNCAN)

[07/16/01] Until now, the Mississippi Burn Camp Foundation has been carried through the efforts of the Vicksburg Fire Department alone in its striving to serve the state’s burned children.

This year though, the Vicksburg volunteers received much-appreciated support from the Mississippi Firefighters Association and the Mississippi Firefighters Auxiliary as they voted to adopt the burn camp.

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The Mississippi Burn Camp Foundation, founded by Vicksburg Fire Chief Kevin Westbrook in 1996, ended its annual weeklong session Saturday at Warner-Tully YMCA Camp in Claiborne County.

“This was the idea when we first came up with the camp, to have a statewide organization,” said Westbrook, who created the camp as a retreat for children who have suffered severe burns.

The foundation’s biggest challenge so far has been getting the word out to burn victims about the camp and what it can do for a burned child’s recovery and rehabilitation, Westbrook said.

“It could be 60 to 80 campers a session, but somehow the message isn’t getting out to those campers,” he said. The Mississippi Firefighter’s Association’s membership is “basically every firefighter in Mississippi and the auxiliary is basically every firefighter’s wife in Mississippi,” Westbrook said. “With that affiliation, word about camp gets out statewide now.”

One person who played an integral part in getting support for the camp was Mississippi Burn Camp Foundation Coordinator Becky Wardlaw of Vicksburg, who is also the newly elected president of the Mississippi Firefighter’s Association Auxiliary.

Wardlaw has been involved in the camp for five years and has seen the good work that is done through the annual camp.

“It’s just such a confidence-booster for the kids who attend the camp,” she said. “We’ve had parents call us after their kids get home and say What did you do to our kids? They’re like different people.'”

Another longtime camp volunteer and Vicksburg firefighter, Capt. Ricky McMullin, said the camp’s whole purpose was summed up best by one camper.

“This is the only place I can come and not feel like a freak,'” he said the young girl said.

During this year’s camp, the kids were involved in activities that included horseback riding courtesy of the Vicksburg Riding Club, swimming, a camp talent show and a go at the Warner-Tully ropes course.

“We don’t let them sit down,” Westbrook said. “We don’t let them feel sorry for themselves. We get them up and keep them moving and show them that they can go swimming and they can do the ropes course and they can ride horses just like everybody else can.”

Catrina Grant is 15 years old and has attended the camp three times.

“I thought it would be boring, but it turned out to be real fun,” she said.

For Catrina, what makes the camp is the staff of volunteer counselors and nurses, mostly members of area fire departments, who take time off work for the week.

“They bend over backwards to do this,” she said. “Most people don’t care, but we can see a few good people in the world.”

The camp is for children younger than 17 who have suffered a burn requiring hospitalization. The camp is free to any child who qualifies. Transportation to and from the camp can even be arranged.

The camp is funded mostly by private donations and corporate sponsors. Along with attracting more campers through the statewide exposure, Westbrook is also hoping to attract more individuals willing to assist in the running of the camp either financially or by volunteering time.