Burn survivors' plea: 'Love me as I am' Camp helps kids learn to cope


TIMBER RIDGE CAMP, W.Va. -- Miles from here 11 years ago, Lisa Soto sat in her highchair. She was 18 months old.

Her 3-year-old brother pushed the chair against their kitchen counter so he could climb up and get a box of cereal.

"I stood up in the high chair and got up on the stove," Lisa said this week. "I was sitting on it and turned it on. My pajamas caught on fire."

Lisa, now 12, sat at a picnic table at a camp for burn survivors in the foothills of the Shenandoah Mountains, telling her story. She was burned deeply over two-thirds of her body.

One of 11 children at last week's camp sponsored by the Baltimore Regional Burn Center Foundation, she spoke in a husky, little voice for all people scarred from burns:

"Don't make fun of them."

Lisa said she's been called "burnt toast." She's been called "burnt Rice Krispies."

What does she say to people who call her that?

"Nothing. I just ignore them."

Isn't that hard to ignore?

She didn't say anything. But she nodded her head. That said everything.

The 11 children came from Virginia, Pennsylvania and Maryland. The weeklong camp cost them nothing. The burn-center foundation paid for it.

The foundation promotes and supports the Baltimore Regional Burn Center, which is at Francis Scott Key Medical Center. It develops programs for burn prevention and provides services for burn survivors.

This is the fourth year for Camp Friendship, as it's called, but the first year it's been here at the 327-acre Timber Ridge Camp west of Winchester, Va., on the Virginia-West Virginia line. It's a 2 1/2 -hour drive from Baltimore.

The children spent the week swimming, riding horses, canoeing, even swinging from a high trapeze. All that was great, Lisa Soto said. But what she liked most was spending a whole week not being stared at.

Camp was a haven -- and not only for the children. Cliff Owens, 27, drove 4 1/2 hours from Kent County on the Eastern Shore to teach the children how to build a bird feeder.

He's been a carpenter since he was 19. He's still a carpenter, and that's a miracle because on April 6, 1990, after a night of drinking, he said, he fell asleep driving his pickup truck and crashed into a pole.

The truck caught fire, and 64 percent of his body was burned, including both hands. He spent 2 1/2 grueling months at the burn center.

Shortly after being released he returned to the hospital. He was outside smoking a cigarette, he said, and a woman kept staring at him.

He'd had it with people staring as if he were a freak, he said. He barged up to the woman and thrust his hands in front of her face.

"What you looking at?" he screamed.

She stuttered that she was merely curious what had happened to him.

"It's none of your business," he hollered, and stalked off.

Mr. Owens has learned to accept stares as a fact of life, he said. But, he added, you never really get over the emotional scars of disfigurement.

Looks aren't everything, pediatric nurse Delores Sweets tells her campers and young patients at Francis Scott Key Medical Center.

That sounds so hollow sometimes in this age of advertising, she said, but what else can you say?

"They're just like everybody else," Ms. Sweets said. "Scarring is only skin deep."

Lawanda Conaway said you have to shine through your scars. She was another burn survivor who visited the children last week.

"It's not that you ever get over it," she said. "It's that you learn to live with what you have and get on with it. We all have to reach some level of acceptance. This is my hand. This is my arm. This is my leg. This is my face. Love me as I am, or this is your problem."

Ms. Conaway, 27, of Owings Mills, was burned in 1987 when her car was rear-ended by a tractor-trailer truck on Interstate 70 outside the Beltway. Her car exploded, and all the skin was burned off her face.

She lost not only her looks, but also her identity. She realized that one day in the grocery store.

She spotted a woman she had gone through school with -- Woodmoor Elementary, Woodlawn Junior High, Milford Mill High. Ms. Conaway saw out of the same eyes; she was anxious to meet an old friend. She forgot for a moment that the world viewed her differently.

"I tapped her on the back," Ms. Conaway said. "She turned around and screamed. She almost went through the roof."

Like Lisa Soto, of Christiana, Pa., and many other burn survivors, Ms. Conaway has endured so many operations, plastic surgeries and skin grafts that she's stopped counting.

She now works at the Center for Burn Reconstruction at Francis Scott Key Medical Center as a makeup artist for burn survivors. She demonstrated the makeup for the children at camp.

One child watching closely was Monique Preston, a tall, slender girl with braided hair tied off with colorful rubber bands. She is 13 and lives in Baltimore near Patterson Park.

Seven years ago, when she was 6, she said, a fire started in an electrical socket in the living room of her house on Albemarle Street. She panicked, she said, and ran through the flames to get out the front door.

Her hands, arms, neck and face were burned. No one else was hurt.

Monique spent three months in the hospital. She and Ms. Sweets, the nurse, became friends.

"For her age, I think she's done well," Ms. Sweets said. "She's one . . . who has learned to live with her disfigurement, if we can use that word."

At camp, during one of the canoeing sessions, Monique happened to be paired with Glenn Patterson, the canoeing instructor. He is from England, working here for the summer.

As they glided their canoe through the calm water toward shore, it became evident that Mr. Patterson was singing. At first you couldn't make out the words.

But as the canoe came closer, the song became clear. It was by British rock musician Eric Clapton, a beautiful ballad titled, "Wonderful Tonight."

In a soft, lovely voice, Mr. Patterson sang: "It's late in the evening. She's wondering what clothes to wear. She puts on her makeup, and brushes her long blond hair.

"And then she'll ask me, 'Do I look all right?' And I'll say, 'Yes, you look wonderful tonight.' "

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