At ‘Camp Ax,’ burn survivors rejoin friends, conquer flames
Firefighters run retreat for young adults, who appreciate support.
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.”
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...
Brandon Bigelow shows his tattoo, which merges into the scars on his left arm, at Camp Ax on Saturday.