KIMBERLY ANDERSON

Post courtesy of ChicagoTribune.com

KIMBERLY ANDERSON

Location: Naperville, IL

Date Of Injury: 1967

To a child’s eye, it looked like an ordinary household item.

It was November, and Kimberly Anderson’s father had just put the lawn mower away for the season at their Glen Ellyn home.

“I guess to a two-and-a-half-year-old little girl, the gas can looks like a watering can, and I was pretending that I was watering the flowers, not knowing it was gasoline,” said Anderson, 51, of Naperville. “And the gasoline went over to the furnace and started the house on fire.”

She was caught in the fire, with her mother getting her out. Anderson spent six months in the hospital, with skin grafts taken from the top of her legs to repair the lower part, where there are now scars.

“I was burned. It was never really discussed in the household. It was never really talked about,” Anderson said. “I was even asked what kinds of resources were available to me as a child. Was there any kind of camp or anything? I honestly don’t know because, if there was, I didn’t know about it because it just wasn’t discussed.”

So years later — in 1991 — when she read a newspaper article about the Illinois Fire Safety Alliance’s Camp “I Am Me,” she knew she had to get involved.

“I read the whole story and just sat there and cried,” said Anderson, a Naperville resident for 20 years. “I said (to my fiancee at the time), ‘I’ve got to get involved with this.’ So I’ve been involved since 1992, on and off. I have three children of my own so there were a couple of summers that I missed due to having a baby. A couple of them I was there on a part-time basis.”

Each year the camp, hosted at YMCA Camp Duncan in Ingleside, gives approximately 70 Illinois children ages 8 to 16 a chance to participate in traditional summer camp activities, as well as those tailored to the specific needs of burn survivors.

This week Anderson is once again at Camp “I Am Me,” her fifth consecutive year volunteering full time again.

“I’ve been doing this, trying to help them cope with their scars and burns and the psychological aspect of it,” she said.

Over the years she has served in a variety of positions, including counselor and cabin leader. This year, she is working with 16- to 18-year-old counselors-in-training.

“So I get to teach these kids how to be good counselors and just be there for the kids,” Anderson said.

While she is helping others at the camp, those attending have helped her heal, too.

“As much as people praise me for doing this for them, they’ve helped me along the way as well. And I think they feel a security with me because they know that I am a real burn survivor,” she said. “I’ve lived through it. I deal with all the looks and the stares and everything else that these kids are dealing with.”

Her first year volunteering at the camp, Anderson learned a lot about herself, she said.

“The thing that is amazing to me, for me, I have no recollection of my burns. I was so young; I don’t have any memory of it. I only know what my parents told me, which is very little,” she said. “But some of these kids you sit down and talk to, and they know exactly what happened to them. And unfortunately, some of them are burned on purpose.”

That’s what makes Saturdays, the day the kids go home, the most difficult part of the camp.

“It’s a very fine line where you have this greatest week with these kids, and they’re not worried about people staring at them or asking questions, and then you have to put them back on a bus and they have to go to foster care, and you don’t know what is on the other side,” she said. “Kids can be very cruel, I dealt with it for a good part of my life. They’re very honest. They can be very mean. ‘You’re different, you look different.’ I guess that’s just the way society is.”

The camp is free for children to attend, with the costs covered through donations and fundraisers throughout the year. Volunteers include burn survivors, firefighters, teachers, emergency medical technicians and nurses who work in hospital burn units.

“Some of these kids are newly burned, and their bandages have still to be changed,” Anderson said. Some children still have nightmares from what happened to them, she said.

But they also have the need and desire to just be kids.

“They just want to be accepted and they just want to be normal, and they don’t want to be teased,” she said. “I was only burned on my legs, as a child, I would wear long pants and jeans. … Well, these children have been burned on their face, and on their hands, they can’t hide them every day. They have to live with that every single day when they look in the mirror.”

In the past two decades she has been volunteering, Anderson has seen the positive effects the camp has on the children, many of whom return year after year. Junior counselors now in their early 20s had Anderson as their counselor when they were 8 years old, she said.

“Now they’re coming back and they’re giving back because it really is a wonderful camp, a wonderful atmosphere. All the kids love it so much they want to come back every year,” she said. “It’s like your burn family for a week. Even though you don’t see each other for a year, we just sort of pick up where we left off.”