By Liz Collin

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – A new summer camp is helping kids battle their scars, inside and out.

Burn survivors met up north to share their stories and find strength. The connections led to newfound courage.

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The goofy chants and games might look and sound a lot like any camp this summer in Cross Lake, but look closely and there is a bond no one would willingly choose.

“I think a lot of healing happens here because people learn to be themselves,” Gabe Schwarzlander said.

Two summers ago, Schwarzlander hit the ATV trails with a few friends in Bemidji. They fueled up when a leaky can gave way on their ride.

“The gas just started splashing up on my back,” Schwarzlander said.

Schwarzlander suffered second and third-degree burns to nearly half his body.

For 10-year-old Jake Thiel, it was a deer hunting trip and a decision to pour gas on a campfire.

“All the wood was wet, so I wanted to start a fire so I asked my dad if I could start a fire,” Thiel said. “It went really high and I jerked back and I sloshed gas on my chest.”

Third-degree burns to Jake’s back, arm and face put him in the hospital for more than a month.

The boys are two of 42 children at this year’s Camp Red who will forever be scarred by their stories as an all-volunteer staff dedicates a week to help them work through it.

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“It’s hard for a kid to realize their dream when they’re afraid to take their shirt off,” said Dr. Jon Gayken.

As a surgeon at Hennepin Healthcare, Gayken is part of a team who will treat some 500 burn patients a year. It’s where Gayken spent time recovering himself after a rare blood infection led to skin grafts on his arms and legs.

“Took me from a very healthy, robust 17-year-old having fun to a kid who literally and figuratively had to learn how to walk again,” Gayken said.

In a way, it’s what makes this camp so special — a new network made possible after a fire call went terribly wrong.

A backdraft fire in 2010 sent Jake Laferriere jumping out of a 3rd floor window to save his life. So moved by kids in his same condition, Laferriere launched Firefighters for Healing, a nonprofit offering support for burn survivors and their families, from gift drives to other random acts of kindness. Now, to a summer camp.

“My scars have meaning behind them. I wear them proud every single day,” Laferriere said. “Camp is a big piece for these kids to come into a judgment-free zone as you guys are seeing and just be kids again.”

For Theil, it’s meant new confidence.

“I’m not really as scared anymore,” he said.

Burn camp costs are covered by donations to Firefighters for Healing. The group also has its sights set on new housing to give families of burn survivors a comfortable place during hospital stays.

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That complex would also be available for any Minnesota firefighter receiving care in the Twin Cities, for any reason at all.

Liz Collin