I suppose most of us have a hero or heroes of some sort, people who make a positive impact and inspire us—sports figures, actors, musicians, teachers, family members…the list goes on. I have heroes in every category listed above, but I hold a special place in my heart for a group of children and teenagers I know who are truly braver and stronger than anyone I've ever met.
These kids are burn survivors, receiving treatment at Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas, Texas, and they will steal your heart too if you ever meet them.
Parkland Memorial Hospital has one of the most respected Burn Trauma Units in the world, and the staff and team of doctors there provide priceless support to children and adults who have survived the trauma of burn injuries. Along with the treatments and therapy, which are crucial to each patient's health and wellbeing, there is also a special and FUN excursion that the younger patients (six to 18 years old) look forward to each year.
The first week of June is probably a bit like Christmas for these remarkable kids and young adults because that’s when they are able to get together in a positive environment where adventures are found and new friends are made. Camp I-Thonka-Chi is Choctaw for "a place that makes one strong or fearless, not afraid to face life," and believe me, this phrase perfectly describes the unique and incredible camp in Meridian, Texas (just 78 miles outside of Dallas).
The camp has grown from a weekend and nine campers to a week-long event with close to 100 kids some years. There's so much for the kids to do at camp—activities include fishing, canoeing, horseback riding, nature hikes, arts and crafts, cookouts, games and much more. Adult burn survivors join Parkland staff, firefighters, and others to serve as volunteer counselors.
Camp I-Thonka-Chi, or "Parkland Burn Camp" as we call it, is a cause that Southwest holds dear. While Southwest does not officially sponsor Parkland Burn Camp, we have sent an eager group of volunteers to camp each year since 1993, making 2008 our 15th consecutive year to share our LUV with these precious and brave souls. Our volunteers are privileged to spend a day at camp, and one Southwest Employee has selflessly served the entire week there as a counselor for the past five years.
After a week of bonding, discovery, and FUN, the campers celebrate with a dance on the last night of camp. Those who “have the moves” hit the dance floor as a “hip” DJ spins the latest tunes. A photographer snaps keepsake shots of the kids taken in front of a “green screen” presenting various backgrounds (magazine covers such as People, Vogue, and Rolling Stone; the Las Vegas strip; Studio 54; even Indiana Jones!). Snow cones, juice, and water are served to help everyone keep cool. And to cap off the evening, the lights go down and the hearts swell up as we all watch a slide show featuring the most memorable highlights of camp. That’s when the Southwest volunteers are saddened that we must say goodbye to these treasured Friends until next year.
It's truly an honor to go to Parkland Burn Camp every year. These beautiful kids are the bravest I've ever seen and, because of them, I cherish every day of my life as a gift. We're there to lift them up but, in the end, they lift us up.