BURLINGTON, Ky. – Kyler, a 10-year-old boy from Monclova, Ohio, is winning a water game at Camp Ernst.
“It’s three-to-nothing,” he said, indicating in the direction of his opponents with his water gun. “We’re definitely beating them.”
Although Kyler insists there’s an objective to the game, it looks like a group of shirtless boys having fun, joyfully soaking one another in the summer sun.
And that’s exactly what it is. The boys’ glowing faces completely eclipse their scars.
The boys are campers this week at Camp Ytiliba (“ability” spelled backward), a program established in 1989 at Shriners Hospital for Children – Cincinnati for patients who have survived a burn injury. The camp provides a place for the patients – both girls and boys – to feel comfortable in their own skin, without the looks or whispers they might receive when otherwise out in public.
“We get a lot of phone calls from families who say that other camps won’t take their kid or their kid can’t go to other camps for whatever reason, so, often, this is their kid’s one chance to go to a summer camp,” said Melissa Blaney, a nurse at Shriners and co-coordinator of Camp Ytiliba. “It’s the one place they can feel like a kid.”
Connections with Other Campers
In addition to water activities, which include a giant water slide and canoeing, Camp Ytiliba offers horseback riding, arts and crafts, relay races, swimming and high rope courses.
The annual camp is free – expenses are covered through charitable donations – for patients between the ages of 9 and 16.
“If they’re younger than 9, they might get homesick,” Blaney said.
That’s a problem because the 49 campers this year are from all over the country, as well as one from Canada.
Rylea, a 9-year-old girl from Gary, Indiana, was homesick when she first arrived at Camp Ernst on Sunday.
“I was nervous I wouldn’t make any friends because I didn’t know anyone,” she said. “But then I made friends with another girl right away and now I can’t wait to come back next year.”
Kaylee, a 14-year-old girl from Burgin, Kentucky, also was fearful the first time she attended Camp Ytiliba four years ago.
“When I first got burned, I felt like I was alone,” she said. “I was worried when I first came to camp that no one was going to like me. Immediately, though, I made friends and people were telling me I was pretty. You get to see people who are like you at this camp. They’re now my family. I love each and every one of them.”
Counselors Who Care
This year at Camp Ytiliba, there are 16 staff counselors, all of whom are employed by Shriners.
“I want people to understand that we’re all nurses and respiratory therapists and performing countless other functions at the hospital,” Blaney said. “It’s not a hired staff that comes in and takes care of the kids for a week at the camp. It’s us. We’ve all seen them and worked with them at their bedsides during their worst times, and now we get to see them at camp. It makes every second of what we do worth it.”
In fact, Blaney first met Lauren Lind, one of the camp’s six junior counselors – patients who are over the age of 18 and invited to come back to camp in a counseling capacity – when Lind was 5 years old and first came to Shriners as a patient. Today, Lind is 20 years old and a junior at the University in Cincinnati majoring in dietetics. After she graduates, Lind wants to work at Shriners.
“This camp is so much different from other camps because you’re surrounded by people going through the same thing as you,” she said. “We help each other.”
Lind attended Camp Ytiliba as a camper when she was 16 years old. She and one of the junior counselors at the time – Alex Goyette, a Wisconsin native – became close and now are good friends. They’re serving as counselors together this year.
“My favorite part of camp was meeting the other kids,” Goyette, 23, said. “Where I’m from, there aren’t many kids who are burned. It’s nice to be with other people who have the same types of injuries as I do.”
Goyette is in his fourth year serving as a camp counselor. His favorite part of working as a counselor, he said, is helping kids get over hurdles.
“I do it out of love for the camp,” he said. “I love helping the kids. I keep in touch with quite a few of the campers. I message them on Facebook, find out how they’re doing, and text them to see if they’re coming to camp next year.”