Parkland’s Burn Camp Offers Young Survivors Support, Fun

Camp I-Thonka-Chi celebratees its 32nd anniversary.

Posted 5/31/2023

Lindsay Gurley is counting down the days until June 4 and dozens of young campers are counting down with her.

For more than three decades, children with burn injuries have gathered the first week of June for an endless array of activities at a place that is free from stares and questions, and a haven where kids can be, well, kids. This year 40 campers will enjoy canoeing, horseback riding, swimming, arts, and crafts – all the things one might imagine at Camp I-Thonka-Chi, Parkland Health’s camp for children with burn injuries.

Held at Camp John Marc near Meridian, Texas, the Parkland Burn Camp, which runs from Sunday, June 4 through Friday, June 9, is celebrating its 32nd anniversary. Camp I-Thonka-Chi, which is Choctaw for “a place that makes one strong or fearless, not afraid to face life,” is unlike some other charity programs and is not supported by a national organization.

Children, ages 6 to 18, can attend for free thanks to the generous donations of Parkland employees and area donors. Camp John Marc also helps with fundraising so more children can attend. During the weeklong event, campers build friendships, improve social skills, and simply have fun without being self-conscious of their scars or injuries.

“We’ve had counselors and chaperones who have come back year after year to be with the kids during camp,” said Donna Crump, Parkland physical therapy manager and co-founder and director of Camp I-Thonka-Chi. “Everyone looks forward to it and many plan their vacations around coming to camp. It’s hard to describe the impact that Camp I-Thonka-Chi makes on you emotionally and spiritually. It’s something that lasts a lifetime.”

Gurley is one of those former campers who has been returning as a counselor for more than a decade.

Burned over 40% of her body when she was just 10 months old, Gurley has no memory of the hot oil that burned her chest, arms, head, and neck. It wasn’t until she attended school that the stares and questions began. She attended her first burn camp at age 6 and “a whole new world opened up for me.”

There, she found herself surrounded by others who looked like her, and where she, like the others, were treated like a normal kid. Since that first adventure, Camp I-Thonka-Chi was something she looked forward to and attended every year until she was 18. Then, at 19, she made the leap to camp counselor.

“I absolutely love going back as a counselor. Every year I count the weeks until it’s camp time,” she said, the enthusiasm overtaking her voice. “It makes me teary-eyed in the best possible way because I get to see all these people who I consider my family. It’s a place where everyone is truly optimistic. There are no ‘negative Nancy’s. You are genuinely surrounded by pure joy.”

Besides the fun and games experienced throughout the week, Gurley looks forward to the fireside chats. It’s a time, she said, where campers talk about real-life situations, not just those of being a burn survivor. “Growing up we all face the same types of struggles and challenges in everyday life,” she said. “These conversations are so important and so meaningful.”

But what makes Camp I-Thonka-Chi even more special is the freedom it provides.

“It’s the freedom to be who you are. If you’re a little quirky, that’s OK. If you’re a little loud or very quiet, that’s OK,” Gurley said. “It’s the fact that no matter what, everyone is accepted for who they are, and that’s what makes it a pure joy.”

For more information on Camp I-Thonka-Chi please visit Parkland Burn Camp. To support the camp with a donation, please visit Parkland Health Foundation. For more information on services available at Parkland, please visit www.parklandhealth.org.

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