At ‘Camp Ax,’ burn sur­vivors re­join friends, con­quer flames

Fire­fight­ers run re­treat for young adults, who ap­pre­ci­ate sup­port.

Austin American-Statesman Sunday - - METRO & STATE - By Tay­lor Gold­en­stein

Go­ing to camps de­signed for burn sur­vivors is so com­mon within the burn sur­vivor com­mu­nity that many can re­call at which re­treat they met which friend.

But once those sur­vivors reach their teenage years, the se­lec­tion of camps thins out. Most are geared to­ward chil­dren, such as the well-known Camp David, a week­long event in Ker­rville run by the non­profit Texas Burn Sur­vivors So­ci­ety.

Af­ter vol­un­teer­ing at that pe­di­atric camp, a group of young Austin fire­fight­ers learned about the void and de­cided to team up with the non­profit to cre­ate “Camp Ax” in Austin, a week­end re­treat for young adults, ages 18 to 21. The third an­nual event runs this week­end.

“It’s re­ally nice to be able to come back and see ev­ery­one again and just have a chill week­end,” 21-year-old Jenna Bullen said Satur­day as she snacked on Dori­tos with friends at a pic­nic ta­ble on the Austin Fire De­part­ment’s Train­ing Academy grounds. “That’s the big­gest thing we al­ways talk about is how we al­ways age out of camps ... so this is per­fect.”

About 15 campers spent the morn­ing with Austin fire­fight­ers, learn­ing how to use heavy tools dur­ing a ve­hi­cle ex­tri­ca­tion demon­stra­tion and check­ing out the in­side of a fire en­gine be­fore head­ing to the Bul­lock Texas State His­tory Mu­seum and HOPE Out­door Gallery.

Bullen, the only out-of-state camper, at­tends be­cause of a Texas con­nec­tion: She was treated at the Shriners Hos­pi­tal for Chil-

dren in Galve­ston af­ter a flash fire ac­ci­dent when she was 3 years old left 95 per­cent of her body burned.

“The camps that we age out of, they think that our prob­lems go away when we are an adult, and if any­thing, it prob­a­bly pro­gresses,” said Bullen, an Ok­la­homa State Univer­sity stu­dent. “We have col­lege and bills and all these other things . ... Peo­ple for­get that.”

Sue Dod­son, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Texas Burn Sur­vivors So­ci­ety, said orga- niz­ers didn’t want sur­vivors to have to wait un­til adult­hood to have an­other com­mu­nity-ori­ented event de­signed for them.

“So many of these kids are iso­lated. They don’t have other burn sur­vivors that are around them, and this is their sec­ond fam­ily,” Dod­son said.

“There’s just some­thing spe­cial about be­ing able to be with peo­ple who re­ally un­der­stand what you’re go­ing through.”

The camp is named af­ter re­tired Austin fire­fighter Alphonse “Ax” Dellert, who in 2000 res­cued then Austin Fire Capt. John Butz from a burn­ing build­ing, sav­ing his life.

“These kids, they have their scars phys­i­cal and emo­tional. This gives them a chance to shine,” Dellert said. “(The fire­fight­ing ex­er­cises) give them a chance for pay­back . ... You got burned; you get a chance to put the fire out this time.”

Tak­ing apart the car dur­ing the ex­tri­ca­tion demon­stra­tion was es­pe­cially mean­ing­ful for Brandon Bigelow, who at 7 years old was, along with his two broth­ers, pulled from a burn­ing ve­hi­cle af­ter an ac­ci­dent.

“It’s an ex­pe­ri­ence,” said Bigelow, 22, of Ker­rville. “This is how peo­ple got out. The fact that we get to do it, it’s pow­er­ful.”

PHO­TOS BY OIL­ING WANG / AMER­I­CAN-STATES­MAN

Austin fire­fighter Vanessa Schae­fer shows Justin Ro­driguez how to use the high-pres­sure noz­zle atop a firetruck at the Austin Fire De­part­ment’s Train­ing Academy on Satur­day. It was part of the Texas Burn Sur­vivor So­ci­ety’s “Camp Ax” re­treat for young adults.

Brandon Bigelow shows his tat­too, which merges into the scars on his left arm, at Camp Ax on Satur­day.

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