July 17, 2009 -- 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.
'Nobody Asks Questions or Judges You' Says Triplet
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."
Crump co-founded Camp I-Thonka-Chi in 1992 along with other employees at Parkland Health and Hospital System in Dallas, Texas. Their goal was to create an escape for the burn survivors they treated each day.
The camp is completely free, and all counselors work on a volunteer basis. It is on the grounds of Camp John Marc, a permanent space which hosts various camps each year for children with medical conditions such as diabetes, cardiac disorders and other debilitating diseases.
Since many of the campers at I-Thonka-Chi come from small towns in which no other burn survivors reside, the week at camp gives children the opportunity to make lifelong friendships and helps them realize they are not alone.
"There's a little bit of camp magic that comes into play," says Crump. "The opportunity to be around other kids who have ... experienced some of the same situations outside of camp that they go through is very therapeutic."
But above all else, she says Camp I-Thonka-Chi is just that -- a camp -- and it offers a wide variety of activities including fishing, ropes courses, boating, volleyball, basketball, softball and arts and crafts.
Camp Inspires Triplets to Give Back
For many young campers, it's the first time they will get to participate in "normal" activities without feeling self-conscious about their scars.
"I got burned on my stomach, and I can, you know, sort of hide it," says 16-year-old camper Caira Porter, "But at camp ... whenever I'm swimming I take off my shirt ... and I feel comfortable and everyone's, like, not staring at me because they know, 'Well, she's burned like us.'"
The camp also organizes activities that specifically apply to the burn survivors. For example, Jordan Berns teaches a class for younger girls, showing them how to cover their scars with makeup.
The advice is more than just skin-deep.
"If you have a smile on your face and your shoulders back ... that kind of exudes confidence in itself," Jordan tells 15-year-old Natasha Riekemann, as she does her makeup.
The Berns triplets have grown tremendously as a result of their experiences at Camp I-Thonka-Chi, and it has inspired them to give back. In addition to working as counselors, the sisters just started their own foundation, called "Three for Hope," which will focus on helping other burn survivors pay medical bills and pay for laser treatments to improve the quality of burn scars.
Like Camp I-Thonka-Chi, the foundation will also provide support and solace for burn survivors -- through family trips, annual gatherings and retreats.
The triplets' project is already providing great satisfaction to other young people. A female burn survivor recently reached out to the girls for help, and Chandra is unable to contain her emotion as her eyes well with tears.
"They're happy tears," she says, "because I'm moving on with my life and I have a bright future ahead of me where I hope to help so many people."
Ellsworth says, "They're just a prime example for the rest of the kids, you know, role models so to speak to, to show everyone here that that can be done and that you can overcome this particular tragedy."
For more information on Camp I-Thonka-Chi, click here.