by Mike Bellamy | Photography by Dave Barfield
“Camp Amigo” serves as a place for kids with burn injuries to be themselves and build a network of support.
It is a gorgeous July Sunday on the Florida gulf coast and dozens of burn camp volunteers are buzzing around Rish Park unpacking, planning and preparing for the 40 or more campers that are only moments away. Everyone is anxiously checking their cell phones for updates on when the campers will arrive, suspicious of the poor cell service each glances onto the gravel parking lot for reassurance. “They’re on the cape!” yells Camp Amigo Director Rusty Roberts. Everyone abandons their task and responds to the large sun drenched parking lot to spot the green buses as they appear. This marks the beginning of what will be an incredible week for campers and counselors alike. In its 16th year, the Children’s Burn Camp of North Florida or, as it was more affectionately renamed by campers, “Camp Amigo” serves as a place for kids with burn injuries to be themselves and build a network of support. While the camp has traveled to other places over the years, Rish Park is really home base for the group. “Rish Park is very user friendly and offers us the best of Florida with beach and bay access right on the property,” says Rusty. The camp was started after Tallahassee firefighters determined that there were more kids in need than spots available at the other camps.
The first of three buses appears on the long flat stretch of coastal highway and the staff erupts in celebration. Kids as young as six — and some grown to young adults — come storming off the buses and into the arms of counselors, or as Rusty refers to them, family. The reunion looks more like speed-hugging as each camper reunites with an old friend, feet lifted off the ground and then to the next. Campers from the Florida Panhandle to Central Florida stage their bags and gather for the welcoming speech and cabin assignments. Standing on a chair, Rusty waves his hands and commands them all to hold their elation for just a few moments. The week ahead is laid out; there will be swimming in the Olympic-sized pool and ocean, paddle boarding, as well as charter fishing on the flats of St. Joe Bay, an extended day trip to Panama City to enjoy Zoo World, Shipwreck Island and dinner with Panama City Firefighters, and the itinerary doesn’t stop there. Rusty unveils the second half of the week: snow cones, games, the big dance and, of course, the Miss Amigo Pageant. Don’t let the name fool you — this is a humiliating but hilarious opportunity for the men to put down their macho image and try on a dress for size. I will also say that no information is readily available about pageant winners.
Each camper paired with a counselor is off to their cabins, which are placed along the winding boardwalks that float above the sand dunes. The counselors are as foreign to Cape San Blas as the campers, coming from all parts of Florida with one counselor coming as far away as London. While the volunteer force is mostly made up of firefighters, some of the counselors come from other backgrounds as well. Nurses, physical therapists and teachers also play an important role at Camp Amigo. The annual camp is free of charge for campers to attend and volunteers work year round to raise the money needed to run the not-for-profit camp.
Anywhere you go throughout the week on the Rish Park grounds you see smiles and hear laughter. On the nearby bay, campers are trying out paddle boarding for the first time. On the soft sand beach, campers are walking along the shoreline, swimming or just hanging out around the long ramp that leads you to paradise. “Camp is so special to me because I get to hang out with my second family,” says Tarek Ali. “I hope that next year I can be a counselor and be the best that I can.” Tarek now lives in Canada but is hopeful he will make another return to camp. The Olympic-sized pool is always a hit, especially when the music is thumping from Buddy’s large sound system and everyone’s tongue is stained a bright color from Gram’s oh-so-sweet snow cones. Inside the dinning and recreation hall, campers are catching an escape from the sun and surf. You will hear an occasional “UNO!” being screamed out or witness an impressive human version of Hungry Hungry Hippos©. Being inside also offers you first-in-line access to the delicious meals the all-volunteer cook staff prepares throughout the week. When asked what’s so special about the week one camper replied, “Because you guys feed us so good!”
Just as soon as the green charter buses had pulled into the parking lot, before I know it they have all returned and sit with their empty luggage compartments on display. It has been an amazing week of laughter and tears, sun and rain and lifelong memories. Everyone enjoyed each adventure just as Rusty had laid them all out a few days before. We said goodbye as we had said hello; all together holding hands in a large circle (or more like a heart as one camper pointed out), each camper telling a story about how they have grown and the experiences that made the week special. With each squeeze of a hand, the stories were passed down the line until it was time to part ways. “These kids are survivors and they leave us with so much value about what life is all about,” says Rusty. “They leave us at the end of camp feeling so fulfilled about our mission.” All gathered in the parking lot to recreate the speed-hugs, update contact information and wipe one last tear. Of course not parting ways until one last question can be asked — “You’re coming back next year, right?!”
For more information about Children’s Burn Camp of North Florida visit www.campamigo.com.