It might be hard to believe that four days can change a child’s life, but the children who go to Camp Susquehanna, a weekend "burn camp" in Pennsylvania, have already had their lives changed in an instant that moment when fire ravaged their bodies.
And this week, for the fifth year in a row, Israeli Jewish and Arab kids are among the campers.
Basil and Sally Massarwa, and Sagi Arusi and Hashem Abo-zalok, pictured with a rehab professional from Tel Aviv’s Schneider Children’s Medical Center, participated in an American "burn camp" in ‘006.
"Burn camps provide an effective means to help young burn survivors cope with their painful new world," according to Burn Advocates Network, a two-year-old support organization based in the Teaneck law offices of Davis, Saperstein & Salomon. "The respite they offer from the cruel treatment kids receive can change their entire outlook on life."
BAN provides recreational equipment and volunteers to some 43 burn camps around the country, and helps them raise funds to add additional weeks to their programs.
Camp Susquehanna, in Millersville, is headed by physical therapist Marcia Levinson. Eight years ago, Levinson visited Israel and discovered there are no burn camps there even though many children especially during those years of the second intifada were being treated in burn units.
"I came home worried that after they leave the hospital, these children were not seeing other children who were burned, and often feel very isolated," she said. "The minute they see another child with a burn they have so much in common."
Time and again, Levinson said, campers who have been too self-conscious to swim or play with other children suddenly enjoy these experiences again because they realize that no one is staring at their scars.
She determined to start a burn camp in Israel a goal toward which she is still working but in the meantime she wanted to bring some of the kids to Susquehanna, a non-sectarian camp founded in 1994 by the Sertoma Service to Mankind Club in Lancaster, one of several organizations that provides enough money for every camper to attend for free.
"I presented the idea to our board, and they decided we could afford to bring two children, one Jewish and one non-Jewish," she said. In fact, some years more than two have been accommodated. This year’s campers and escorts are being sponsored by BAN.
It took Levinson two years to put the pieces in place. Eventually she found a willing partner in Tel Aviv’s Schneider Children’s Medical Center. The hospital’s rehabilitation staff chooses the candidates, who stay at Levinson’s house in Philadelphia for a few days until camp starts. At least one therapist or social-work professional from Schneider always accompanies them, in part to learn more about burn camps and take that knowledge back home.
"It’s hard for parents to put these children of whom they are so protective on a plane to another country," Levinson said. "But it has been an amazing experience on many levels. The first year, we had two brothers from a small Arab village and a [Jewish] child from the Tel Aviv area. As soon as the three children got to know each other, they asked if they could stay in the same room. They ate together and walked around with their arms around each other. Somehow they realized they were just people."
Though she worried that the language barrier would keep the Israeli children from their American peers, she found that it has not been an issue. "They eat and play together, and somehow transcend the language difference," she said.
"No one understands exactly how it works, but the kids come out with a much better outlook on life, ready to make friends and deal with the outside world," said Sam Davis of Davis, Saperstein & Salomon.
As children, Davis and his two law partners went to Hebrew school at the Bergenfield-Dumont Jewish Center, and have long been involved in Jewish philanthropies. The Burn Advocates Network grew out of their familiarity with the devastating effects of burns suffered by clients.
"We volunteer at camps and raise awareness for the need for kids to go to burn camps because of the transformative effect of these camps," said Davis. "We bring recreational and musical equipment ‘friendly’ for people who have burn injuries to their hands, because there is a high incidence of pediatric hand injuries from burns."
This fact was confirmed by Iuliana Eshel, Schneider’s head of occupational therapy, who is accompanying this year’s campers. Eshel said many of the burns treated at Schneider are the result of children touching objects such as hot-plates and kettles. Although many of the children injured in this way come from large families Arab or fervently Orthodox Jewish ones, she said the Schneider staff is not able to send religiously observant children of either faith to Susquehanna because it operates from Thursday to Sunday.
"This year we chose an 18-year-old with multiple injuries from a car accident two years ago," said Eshel. "This is the first time we’re sending someone who needs a full-time caregiver because he is in a wheelchair. The other child, a 1′-year-old girl, also has multiple injuries from a crash burns and fractures. We try to take children who are much more seriously injured, who won’t have any other opportunity to go abroad. They have a chance to do things and have experiences they otherwise wouldn’t have."
Davis said BAN is committed to helping Levinson make an Israeli burn camp a reality in the next few years. "I am looking for 50 families to become sponsors," said Davis, who is a member of Temple Beth El in Closter. "I welcome anyone interested to write to me at or stop by my Cedar Lane office. If they agree to be an Israeli burn camp sponsor, I’ll buy them a pastrami sandwich at Noah’s Ark."