Severely burned children find a refuge from ostracism and pain at a unique summer camp
September 13, 1993
by Lou Ann Walker
photographs by Mary Ellen Mark

“I love camp,” says Jodi Brocco, 5, whose Lycra pressure garment and hood are designed to allow her skin to heal smoothly, without raised, twisting scars.

ON THE FLOOR NEXT TO her bunk, Vernell Guy, 4 1/2, peels a bloody sock off her foot. A year and a half ago, Vernell was burned over 98 percent of her body when a can of gasoline temporarily set down in a hallway was ignited by a heater and exploded. The scarred skin on her delicate legs and ankles has become infected in places, and Vernell wails as a nurse carefully changes the dressing. Jodi Brocco watches wide-eyed. "Don't cry," she says. "Mine were that bad. Yours will get better." Vernell looks up. Her crying stops.

Vernell and Jodi are two of the 68 young people, ages 5 to 17, who have come to Camp Janus, a retreat for burn survivors in the rolling hills of Navasota, Tex., 75 miles north of Houston. For many of these children, four days here will be the first chance they have ever had to share feelings about their painful experiences.

Camp Janus was created seven years ago by Cyndy Thomas, 45, while she was working as a social worker in the burn unit at Houston's Hermann Hospital. One day in 1985, when she was trying to divert a child's attention as he endured a stinging burn scrub, Thomas realized how dismal the child's future was going to be. "Once they left the hospital, these little kids had nothing to look forward to," says Thomas. "Nothing." At that moment, Thomas decided to establish a retreat where burned children could learn from each other and begin to build the self-confidence they would desperately need.

"We had to fight to get this camp started," says Thomas, who finally got seed money from an adult burn victim she had treated and a couple who had lost a son in a fire. This year, the nearly $25,000 cost to run the camp came from the Children's Miracle Network Telethon, the Houston Fire Department (which publishes a fund-raising beefcake calendar) and private donations. Following are the stories of a few of this year's courageous campers.

Jodi (right) with Ruthie Machado, 7 (left), and Shamica Baker, 6.

Jodi Brocco: Last year, when she was 4, Jodi, who lives in League City, Tex., was lighting a candle when her nightgown went up in flames, searing the skin on her neck, arms, legs, torso and buttocks. Though it's 85°F, Jodi wears her pressure garment much of the day and night, removing it for skin treatments and bathing.

Jodi has a talent for getting other children to talk to her. Ruthie Machado tells of the cruel schoolmates who tease her and spit on her books. Solemnly, other children recite their stories, several mentioning the precise day they were burned. Some tell of nightmares. Jodi herself refuses to sleep alone in her bunk. She climbs in with a different camper or counselor each night.

For many, baring their scars in the swimming pool is the test of bravery. But Jodi doesn't hesitate before putting her swimsuit on and diving in. "This is when we want to catch them," says Thomas, "before they have the negative tapes playing in their heads."

“Karate is a good way to learn self-defense,” says Lamont “Spud” Walker-Garrett, 11 (working out with Houston fireman Charles Key). Spud’s hand was amputated at 11 months after he touched live electrical wires.

Just before the camp session began, Misty Muncy, 14 (applying her daily corrective makeup), dumped her boyfriend. “He didn’t want to go anywhere with me,” she says.

David Vasquez, 7 (with Sammie, the camp dog), wears a mask to lessen scarring.

Dennis Head: At age 2 1/2, Dennis, now 14, was playing with matches in the family car, while waiting for his mother, when his clothing caught fire. He was burned over most of his body and subsequently lost his right leg. Two years ago at Camp Janus, he threw himself to the ground in the middle of a relay race and cried in frustration because the prosthetic leg he has worn since age 3 slowed him down. This year, Dennis, whose home is in Texas City, Tex., is in a karate class with a Houston firefighter. Dennis balances carefully on his own leg and delivers a vicious blow with his prosthesis.

Misty Muncy: Misty, who is from San Antonio, desperately wanted to come to Camp Janus last year, but she hadn't healed sufficiently from burns to her head and limbs -suffered when her brother, trying to prevent a kitchen fire, threw flaming cooking oil into the backyard and accidentally hit her with it. The three-month hospital stay was "horrible," says Misty. "You can't see the sky. You can't feel the fresh air. You just feel the pain. It hurts all day."

This year, however, she was nervous about going to Camp Janus. "I wasn't really sure if it was going to turn out all right," she says. Indeed, for two days she complained about the food and having to get up at 7 a.m.

Then on the third day, waiting for camp photos to be taken, Misty is approached by a girl with short blond hair and "scars all over her face." Out of the blue, "the girl told me that I had scars on the outside but not as many on the inside as other people in the world," says Misty. "Dang!" she adds, marveling at how profoundly the comment had affected her. "You can feel at home here because you can express your feelings. They know what you're thinking. They know what you've gone through."

On the bus heading home, Jodi Brocco and Wanetta Chopane (center), 14, listen as Mandi Binkley, 15, repeats a lip-synching performance she gave at the all-camp dance.

Alyssa Wilson: Alyssa, 11, was also apprehensive about coming to camp. Last year her younger sister, her best friend and her dog were killed in a fire that destroyed her home in Hebbronville, Tex. Alyssa, who was burned on her face and body, barely spoke to her cabinmates during her first day at camp.

The following morning at a workshop where campers make wooden puzzles, Alyssa falls in with Misty and Nikki Andrus, 13, who was burned over 85 percent of her body in a house trailer fire five years ago. Her father saved her, then died as a result of the fire. "At first it was sad," says Nikki, who is from Houston, "but you learn to cope." Slowly, Alyssa begins opening up.

Then there is a terrible moment. Alyssa had arrived at camp wearing silver earrings, a present from her grandmother to her mother and the only items salvaged from the ashes of the fire. Suddenly she discovers one missing. Counselors scour the area, even combing through patches of mud, without luck. Alyssa phones home sobbing. Then she returns to her new friends and relates what her mother had said: "Silver things can be replaced. Little children can't." Alyssa leans on Misty's shoulder, crying. "At school they told me I'd never be loved by a man or anyone," she says. "They call me a burnt piece of toast."

Misty gives Alyssa a hug, then leads her into the dining room, where a group of clowns have gathered, several of them volunteers from Houston, to entertain the youngsters. Misty hands Alyssa a heart-shaped balloon. "Don't forget that other people will love you," says Misty.

“They all adore the pool,” says Cyndy Thomas, founder and director of Camp Janus.

Angie Mendoza: Like the other clowns, Angie, 20, is brightly attired, wearing an apple-green suit and black patent leather shoes, but she alone is a burn survivor. When Angie was 9, she poured gasoline over an anthill near her Houston home and dropped a match onto it. The explosion left her burned over half her body, including her face, neck and hands.

The accident and its aftermath, with an excruciating burn treatment that she calls "a trip to hell," left Angie emotionally scarred as well. Once an honors student in middle school, she almost dropped out of high school. Her classmates, some of whom compared her with Freddy Krueger of the Nightmare on Elm Street movies, were not supportive. When Angie started going to Camp Janus at age 12 (she has been a camper for four years and a volunteer for four), she had closed herself off from the others. Cyndy Thomas recalls putting her thumb under Angie's chin, pushing it up and saying, " 'We have to have eye contact!' Once I got so exasperated I slammed my hand on the table."

Finally, Angie came around.
"Now I'm doing okay," Angie says shyly. Currently enrolled in the University of Houston Downtown -she aspires to a career in occupational therapy- Angie says that Camp Janus has contributed to her optimism. "It is like a different little world," she says. "It's something that I have to come back to every year. It keeps my hopes up."

Kimberly Smith, 8, who was trapped in a house fire in 1988 with her twin brothers, is a three-year camp veteran.

Mandi Binkley: "Mandi is supposed to be wearing her mask," child life specialist Catherine Morgan says, "but when she wears it, she's so withdrawn." Once, after leaving the hospital, Mandi and her mother, both burned in a gas explosion at their house, went to a grocery store in their hometown of Jennings, La., wearing hoods and masks. "The store owners called the police," Morgan says. "We have a lot to do to educate the public about burns."

Mandi joins a makeup seminar conducted by paramedical makeup artist Paula Dean, who first came to camp when another makeup artist confided that she couldn't bear working with disfigured faces. "Their faces are frozen in time," Dean says. "Once they're burned on the face, that's the age face they're going to have the rest of their lives." Mandi bats her elongated eyelashes, pleased with the result.

Late that night in Mandi's cabin, bunkmates compare notes. What's the best thing about camp? "The way people treat you," says Terri Jo Fairchild, 17. The worst? "Going home so soon."

Dennis Head straps on the “more comfortable” prothesis he likes to use for swimming.