Providing a safe place to heal

Summer Burn Camp campers participate in a variety of activities during the week-long camp including rock climbing. There is also a zipline at Camp Timberlee along with water sports and horseback riding.
Summer Burn Camp campers participate in a variety of activities during the week-long camp including rock climbing. There is also a zipline at Camp Timberlee along with water sports and horseback riding.

Burn Camp is more than just summer fun

By Tracy Ouellette


Kids sometimes feel like they are alone in what they’re going through or that they’re “different” than everyone else.

But when a kid survives a fire and carries the scars openly for the whole world to see, that feeling of being different is with them every second of every day.

It’s something Burn Camp counselor Tanya Bolchen, 28, can identify with.

“I was in a house fire at my grandparents house when I was four months old,” Bolchen said. “The air conditioner caught the drapes on fire then exploded.”

Bolchen has been coming to Burn Camp for its entire 20-year existence, first as a camper and then as a counselor to share her life experience with the next generation of burn survivors.

“Burn Camp made such a difference in my life,” she said. “I never met any other burn survivors before and for the first time I wasn’t the only one with burns. I didn’t stand out. I really liked that.

“As a counselor, I have the chance to show that the burns don’t have to define your life. You go with it and do the best you can,” she said.

Bolchen lives in Middleton and is a librarian. She said Burn Camp is an integral part of her life and she looks forward to it every year.

“Just getting to see every one, see how the kids grow from year to year … it’s like a reunion.”

She said providing the kids with a safe place like this is so important because it’s a place where people really know what they’re going through.

“It’s just a place you can come and be welcome and talk about anything,” she said.

Camp nurse Andrea Williams, who is also a 20-year veteran of the camp, has been involved from the very start.

“I’ve been her long enough to know all the people,” she said.

Williams helped set up Burn Camp with its founder, Dan Gengler, a retired Milwaukee firefighter. They had been taking local kids down to the Burn Camp in Illinois, but around 1994 they were told that by 1995 they needed to make other arrangements because the Illinois camp had grown too large.

“So, we formulated a committee and in about a month and a half of meetings, we decided to open a camp in ’95,” Gengler said. “We did a statewide search for a location and thought Timberlee offered some convenience and great camp facilities.”

“We were concerned about accessibility for the children,” Williams said. “Some of the children have lost body parts and full limbs and this location provided the right physical layout so all the children would have access to all the activities.”

And there are plenty of those activities to entertain the children during the week, including swimming, diving, horseback riding, ziplining, wall climbing and a host of other camping fun.

But it’s not just about the fun. The camp is there to help the kids learn to do things on their own and discover their full potential.

“Being able to watch the children struggle with something like climbing the wall is something special,” Williams said. “We don’t want to give them things that are too easy to accomplish. They need to work at it and climb that wall!”

Williams said it’s important that the kids have a place where they’re challenged and not treated differently.

Dr. Thomas “Doc” Schneider, 67, of Wauwatosa, is also one of the counselors at the camp. He’s been coming all 20 years as well.

Schneider was the director of the Burn Unit at Columbia/St. Mary’s Hospital for “quite a length of time.”

“Burns is a love it or leave it thing. We’re lucky that if we do everything right they often can return to society and that does make all the hard work worth it,” he said.

Schneider said working with the kids is cathartic, a sentiment shared by Gengle and Williams.

“A lot of people who come out are the paramedics who treated burn victims in the field and lost them,” Schneider said. “They come here to sort of follow up and see positive outcomes. It rejuvenates you. The best part of this is the feeling you get by being here.”

Burn Camp is funded by donations and fundraisers held throughout the year, many times by local fire fighting/rescue organizations. It takes about $100,000 a year to put on camp.

“Every child goes to Burn Camp for free, only cost is cost of postage for apps and gas to get there,” Gengler said. “Camp is funded from generous donors from all over the state; we get a lot of it from the state fire services, some of that includes in-kind donations, we get ice cream, transportation, fire departments cook meals from us, that type of thing.”

Gengler said one out of three counselors and staff is a burn survivor. “It’s an amazing statistic, and out of that about two-thirds are former campers.

“In many cases this camp has made a difference in these young children’s lives to give them the incentive to reach the maximum potential life has to offer them.”

And that’s all any of them can ask for.

The Wisconsin Alliance for Fire Safety’s Burn Camp is held at Camp Timber-Lee in East Troy the second week of August.

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