Father, volunteer and best hugger

The Baltimore Sun

Just as Robert Campbell finished counting to 10, his daughter, Jaden, stuffed Cuddlies - her favorite teddy bear - under a pillow. Then Robert picked up a stuffed dog named Casper and began to search for Jaden's furry friend.

"Am I getting hot?" Campbell asked a stuffed Eeyore sitting on the couch, in a high-pitched voice.

"I haven't seen Cuddlies in two years," said the 5-year-old in a slow, drawn-out voice that mimicked the Winnie the Pooh character. But Campbell didn't buy it. "Beep, beep, beep, beep," he said, as he lifted the pillow next to Eeyore and found Cuddlies.

The game of hide-and-seek is typical for the duo, Campbell said. Spending time with his daughter is his favorite thing to do. But it wasn't always that way.

"When I was a young man, I didn't like children and didn't like to be around them," said Campbell, a Westminster resident. "Now I can't imagine not being around kids, or not being a father. Every day is like Father's Day for me."

But all the same, Jaden was planning a Father's Day surprise that would top their typical activities.

Campbell's change of heart about fatherhood came after an accident in which he was severely burned and eventually became permanently disabled. Campbell used his experience to help children at a burn camp.

A decade later, his daughter was born, and being a father keeps him going.

"How many fathers get to spend their entire day with their children?" he asked. "I think that many fathers don't have the patience or will to deal with little kids. They are tired and work all day and want to be left alone when they get home. I feel fortunate that I stay home, and get to spend my day with my daughter. I enjoy it."

He used to spend his time working as a siding mechanic and lifting weights, he said. Then, in April 1986, his life changed forever.

Campbell was helping to install aluminum siding on a house. He was standing on the ground holding a ladder while a co-worker was extending it, he said. The man accidentally hit an electrical wire with the ladder.

On the ground, Campbell was electrocuted, suffering burns over 40 percent of his body. He spent about two months in the hospital.

"I cried a lot and felt sorry for myself," he said. "I was in a lot of pain all the time. I couldn't hold my head up straight, because of the burns on my neck.

"Before that I was vain. The accident showed me how fast things can change."

He endured about 60 surgeries over a four-year period that included some experimental procedures that were written up in medical journals, he said.

"I was angry," he said. "I couldn't eat or even go to the bathroom without help. I was unable to do anything for myself. I was 19 years old, and I thought highly of myself before the accident, and then I was totally dependent on other people."

But he did everything he was told to do and within eight months, he could shave and do other basic tasks alone. Shortly after he completed his surgeries, he became a counselor at the Mid-Atlantic Burn Camp in Montgomery County. While there, Campbell discovered that he had a way with kids.

"I wanted to show the kids that they could still have fun, and that they could still have a life," said Campbell, who was one of the original camp counselors. "It was humbling to see kids who were burned so badly they didn't have a face or hands left. Some were victims of house fires, while others were victims of child abuse."

Campbell just wanted the kids to have fun, he said.

"I wanted them to see that they could function, and go crabbing and fishing like other kids without burns," he said. "I wanted them to leave the scars from their burns behind. There were some kids who wouldn't swim at the beginning, and I felt so good when I could get them in the water."

After he stopped volunteering at the camp, he took up stained glass and spent time with his wife, Lynn, who works as an animal caretaker at the Carroll County Humane Society.

In the meantime, Campbell had given up hope of ever having children of his own. Although he and his wife tried, they decided they were never going to have children.

Jaden was a wonderful surprise, he said. When Jaden was born, he was crying like a baby, he said. "When we were in the delivery room, I was counting for my wife and every time I got to five I started crying again," he said. "The doctor was even laughing. I was so happy. I had never changed a diaper, but I was determined to learn."

Now he gets his greatest joy from being a dad, he said.

"Being a father is one of the greatest things in the world," Campbell said. "It's also one of the hardest. Sometimes you have to raise your voice and tell them no. And even though it's for their own good, it still breaks your heart."

Since Jaden's birth, he has spent his days caring for his daughter. He even joined MOMS, a local parent support group, he said.

"There are no dads' groups in the area," he said. "And Jaden needed to be around kids her own age. I went to a meeting and they asked me if I wanted to join, so I did. I don't really talk a lot with the women, I go to play with the kids."

When Jaden started attending Little Friends of Grace Preschool in Westminster, Campbell became a volunteer. And when Suzanne House, the director, moved to another church to open the Crossroads Christian Preschool this year, Campbell and Jaden moved with her, she said.

He goes above and beyond as a volunteer, House said.

"Bobby comes in every day after school and cleans up after me," she said. "He's like an unpaid staff person. And the children all love him. He's a marvelous dad, and he has fantastic parenting skills."

He's a remarkable person, she said.

"When my daughter became ill with cancer, he gave me gift cards for restaurants because he knew I wasn't eating," she said. "I would like to clone him. I told him I was going to fail Jaden so he would stay, and he volunteered to stay even though Jaden starts kindergarten this year. He is just a unique person and a special dad."

Jaden agreed. She enjoys his presence at school, she said.

"When my daddy comes to school, I get to see him all the time and I don't miss him like when he's gone," she said. "My favorite thing to do is to hug him. He gives biiiiiig hugs. He's the best daddy in the world."

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