This summer, many children will go to summer camp, gather around a campfire, eat s'mores and share stories.
This is no different for the children at Camp I-Thonka-Chi in Meridian, Texas -- with one exception -- all of the campers are burn survivors. The campfires that surround them remind them of their painful pasts and reinforce the reason they are all at camp.
Camp I-Thonka-Chi translates in Choctaw to "a place that makes one strong or fearless, not afraid to face life," and it's an apt description: Every year during the first week of June, the camp provides sanctuary for young burn survivors, ages 6 to 18. It's a place where no one stares at their scars or passes judgment, so campers can focus on enjoying outdoor activities, like swimming, rowing boats and horseback riding -- just like the other kids do.
CLICK HERE to see photos of the triplets through the years.
This summer, the 22-year-old Berns triplets -- Jordan, Chandra and Trae -- worked as counselors at this very special camp. Far from an ordinary summer job, it was an opportunity that brought their lives full circle.
When they were only 17 months old, the triplets were horribly burned after their home was set ablaze. Their father, Scott, rescued them through their bedroom window, but their mother, Patti, was not so lucky. She was found unconscious and died three days later as a result of smoke inhalation.
Scott Berns was charged with arson but was acquitted of the charges after a protracted, two-year investigation.
Miraculously, the girls survived despite third-degree burns on a third of their bodies, but it was a constant fight. They spent their early years undergoing an arduous recovery process that was long and agonizing, physically and mentally. Over the years, they endured multiple surgeries, skin grafts and physical therapy.
Camp staffers Donna Crump and Beth Ellsworth have known the Berns sisters for many years and have witnessed their courage firsthand. As physical therapists, they treated the triplets as they recovered from their burns 20 years ago.
Two decades later, Crump still recalls the girls' resilient spirit.
"Any time you have ... that severe of an injury, it is definitely life-threatening. ... The fact that they're so tiny and how much trauma can their little bodies take and survive it ... these girls have always been fighters," she says.
On top of the physical trauma were the relentless teasing and stares they received from their peers. But for one week every summer, the triplets found sanctuary at Camp I-Thonka-Chi.
"Nobody asks questions or judges you or anything, and you're just really carefree," says Chandra about the camp. "I have such a good time every year. And ... as soon as I get back home, I'm looking forward to the next year."
"It still is one of my favorite places on Earth," says Trae, the youngest of the triplets. "It's so amazing, and [it's great] being able to give back and help the campers have as much fun as I did."
"The mission of this camp," says Crump, "is to try and provide a place that the children that have survived the burn injuries can come to, where they feel safe, where they can feel loved, where they can be around other kids who are just like them."