Westport fire official's summer fun at camp -- with burn victims
Westport Assistant Fire Chief Robert Kepchar doesn't vacation in the tropics. He'd rather spend a week during summer at the Arthur C. Luf Children's Burn Camp in the upstate town of Union, near the Massachusetts border.
Whether teaching children who've suffered severe burns how to fish, assisting youngsters on the ropes course, helping physically challenged children from activity to activity in a golf cart, or capturing memories for the kids as the official camp photographer, the burns-victims' camp is to Kepchar what a vacation oasis is to others.
Now the assistant camp director, Kepchar first became a counselor there 20 years ago. Every hour he has spent at the camp has been as a volunteer.
"I do it because it is something that is very rewarding to me," said the 33-year firefighter. "It has taught me what adversity means.
He added, "When I see these young campers, some with partial limbs or no limbs, actually do some climbing with what they have available to them, it inspires. It tells me that I'm so lucky and blessed and that whatever problems I might have in my life are very solvable."
The 176-acre camp, run by the Connecticut Burns Care Foundation, provides a free week of camp for youngsters 8 to 18 years old, complete with archery, boating, hiking, paint ball and other activities. There is a focus on individual attention for every camper with 94 counselors for 73 children this season.
One objective is to build each child's self-esteem and self-confidence, to "treat them with respect and try to get them to realize that there is life after their burn injury, that they can lead successful lives despite their challenge," said Frank Szivos, executive director of the Connecticut Burns Care Foundation.
The camp counselors include firefighters, therapists, some former campers and a few burn survivors, but the firefighters account for 70 percent of the staff, according to Szivos.
"Many of them, every day in their job, see people get injured and so they have a real commitment and compassion for these kids," he said.
Kepchar said when the children come to camp, they are accepted because they don't look different from anybody else.
"I can tell you after 20 years, I don't even see the burns," he said. "I just want to be able to see the kids and have a great camping experience."
Maddie Ratte, a 17-year-old camper from Weston who four years ago suffered a scalding burn from hot water that caused third-degree burns over more than 20 percent of her body, said she likes that a camper can "be yourself and not be self-conscious about your injury."
"I look forward to it every year," she added. "I count down six months ahead." Ratte's three favorite activities at the camp are swimming, testing herself on the ropes course and Outdoor Adventure, a newer program at the camp.
"I learned how to build a shelter and start a fire if I ever get lost in the woods," she said.
Ratte said the hardest part of camp is when the week ends and friends all go their separate ways. Campers come from all over New England, as well as New Jersey, New York, Washington, D.C., Maryland, Florida, Puerto Rico and even a few from as far away as Russia, Jamaica, Peru and Vietnam.
For a good deal of the children, the week at the burns camp is their first extended experience away from home. Campers may be shy when they first arrive and not talkative, but after a week of activities and confidence-building, "their personalities blossom," according to Kepchar.
Even wheelchair-bound campers find there is no limit to what they can experience. Kepchar recalled an instance where one child in a wheelchair was able to try a 300-foot-long zip line thanks to a special harness.
"They find an unconditional love and caring here," he said.
Kepchar, married and the father of two daughters, has been involved with the camp long enough to see campers return as counselors. He's also seen success stories among the campers, where young burn victims later are able to pursue a medical career, become a physical therapist or serve in the military.
"Maybe they wouldn't have been able to achieve it without this [the camp experience], I don't know," said Kepchar. "But we give them the support, the caring, the understanding and the knowledge they can do whatever they put their minds to."
The children aren't the only ones who have a great time. Kepchar, who became assistant camp director six years ago, admitted the days "fly by."
The only member of the Westport Fire Department to volunteer at the camp, Kepchar believes others from the ranks of "Westport's Bravest," as well as firefighters from other communities, should get involved.
"Every firefighter should experience this," he said. "It will change how they look at life. They'll see what it means to have extreme challenges and how to overcome them. You'll see these kids do it right in front of your eyes."
For more information about the Arthur C. Luf Children's Burn Camp, log on to http://www.ctburnsfoundation.org/cbc.htm.