Natalie Maled, left, a Center Grove High School junior, plays tetherball with a fellow camper during the Hoosier Burn Camp, held at Camp Tecumseh in Battle Ground from May 26 to 31. The annual camp is held for young burn survivors to have an opportunity to enjoy traditional summer camp activities while building self-esteem, resilience and lasting friendships. SUBMITTED PHOTO

The experience was everything you’d expect from a summer camp.

Kids splashed in the lake, sang silly songs around the campfire and bonded in the dining hall. They played sports and practiced archery, and completed arts and crafts to remember their week.

Campers came from all over Indiana, in all age groups and from all backgrounds. But they all share one common connection — they’re all burn survivors. The Hoosier Burn Camp gave them a chance to celebrate despite their injuries.

“Being at the lake, cutting loose and having fun. After all we have been through, we are all still … us and now we have the opportunity to bond and connect,” said Natalie Maled, a Center Grove High School junior who has attended the camp yearly.

The Hoosier Burn Camp is an annual experience encouraging healing, camaraderie and fun. Held at Camp Tecumseh in Battle Ground, the camp is an opportunity for young burn survivors to enjoy traditional summer camp activities while building self-esteem, resilience and lasting friendships.

Seeing kids who have suffered such trauma at a young age let loose is an enriching and empowering experience.

“We want them to have the opportunity be who they are, to be ‘just one of the kids,’” said Caitlin Dougherty, program director for Hoosier Burn Camp. “They don’t have to worry about being stared at, they don’t have to worry about why they have these scars on their bodies. Everybody there knows why they’re there, and for once, they can just breathe.”

The Hoosier Burn Camp was founded in 1997, bringing to life a concept envisioned by the Indiana State Fire Marshal and Riley Hospital for Children at IU Health. The idea was to combine the fun of summer camp with opportunities to build life skills that kids need to fully recover from the trauma of their burn injuries.

Over the past 27 years, the organization has grown to provide 12 to 15 programs throughout the year to burn survivors from infancy through young adulthood. Many of these programs support the entire family as well, Dougherty said.

“We’re just here to provide burn support for burn survivors and their families, since the burn injury does have an impact not only on the burn survivor, but the entire family,” Dougherty said. “We really just want to provide a support network for them.”

This year’s Hoosier Burn Camp was held from May 26 to 31, where 55 burn survivors gathered for a week’s worth of fun. For many of the campers, it was a chance to see old friends and catch up after a year.

“One of the best moments of camp happens on the first day. Reunited with everyone. That’s pretty special,” Maled said.

The 16-year-old has been coming to Hoosier Burn Camp for the past two years. Her life changed in March of 2022, when she suffered second-degree burns across her left leg, extending from her ankle to her thigh.

She had been sitting around the table having fondue with her family when she accidentally tipped her chair over, catching the cord of the pot and spilling scalding hot oil on her leg. Her family rushed her to Eskenazi Hospital, near where her mother lived at the time, where she received immediate treatment before being transferred to Riley Hospital for Children for more intensive care for what was determined to be second-degree burns.

Doctors estimated 18% of her body had been burned.

Maled spent 10 days in Riley Hospital for Children at IU Health’s Speedway Burn Unit, enduring multiple surgeries and skin grafts to repair her damaged body.

The trauma of the accident has stuck with her and changed her life. But the Hoosier Burn Camp is an opportunity connect with others who have gone through something similar.

“It’s the warmth, absolute love and pure light. Just being welcomed and loved and at the same time pushed outside of my comfort zone. Challenge and warmth keeps me coming back,” she said.

Hoosier Burn Camp organizers try to structure the weeklong camp in a way that blends traditional camp activities with team-building and personal growth exercises as well. Campers choose different programs they can sign up for to learn a different skill, such as swimming, rifling, canoeing and more.

Every year features a theme; the 2024 camp was centered around the TV show “Survivor.”

“All of our games and stuff we had throughout the week were really tailored towards the show. We had obstacle courses and puzzles they had to solve,” Dougherty said.

But the camp offers opportunities for reflection as well. Each day ends with a group discussion, where kids can talk about their day, the challenges they faced, or even something interesting they learned. The Challenger concept invites participants to pick a character trait to work on throughout the year, such as honesty or responsibility.

During camp, they talk to a counselor about why they picked that trait and write a letter to themselves. Camp organizers send the campers their letters in December to encourage them to keep working.

All of the programs offer a therapeutic aspect, Dougherty said. But maybe most important is the sense of community that builds among the campers during the week.

“Being around other kids that have been through something similar as they have, getting to experience that shared bond they have together,” Dougherty said. “It’s really powerful and magical.”