When Dana Dillard, MSW ’01, signed up for a course called Social Work with Burn Survivors at the end of her first year in graduate school, she had no idea that she would become an integral part of a summer camp for burn-injured children.
“I still joke with [Associate Professor Nancy Williams] that I can remember the day that I stood outside of her office door and had no idea what I was getting myself into when I signed up for camp,” Dillard recalled.
Now the programs director for the Georgia Firefighters Burn Foundation, Dillard is involved in the planning and programming for Camp Oo-U-La®, which has been offered free-of-charge to Georgia children since 1992. Children between the ages of 7 and 17, who have spent at least four days in the burn unit of a Georgia hospital, are eligible. Almost 100 campers attend the week-long camp each summer.
Dillard, like many volunteers, learned about the camp through Associate Professor Nancy R. Williams, who founded the course Social Work with Burn Survivors. She volunteered, spending summer vacations at Camp Oo-U-La while working as a medical social worker and later as a school social worker.
“The kids get into your heart and you just fall in love with them,” she said. “Just seeing the resiliency in them-the ‘funness’ of seeing the same faces year to year and watching them grow up as well as the lasting friendships-keeps me coming back.”
When the camp was started 18 years ago, firefighters wanted burn-injured kids to have a fun-haven where they could escape stares and not have to explain what happened to them. Now, as many former campers are returning as camp counselors, they can offer a listening ear to new campers and talk about their burn experiences.
Social work students and alumni volunteers come equipped not only to help in various staff positions, but also to assist with the psychosocial needs of the campers. “We’ve really had a strong influence by way of having that education and background. I’m really proud of this,” she said.
This year, 14 UGA social work students volunteered for course credit as part of the burn camp class, under the leadership of SSW Associate Professor Stacey Kolomer. Many SSW students who volunteered at burn camp, like Dillard, have returned year after year. Around 20 percent of the 109 volunteers at camp this year were SSW students and alumni.
Kolomer has taught the burn camp class for the past 3 years. She is amazed each year by the life-changing transformation the students go through. “You don’t get that in other classes,” she said. “You only get it with a hands-on experience like this. It is a privilege to witness.”
The burn camp course was started by Williams in 2000 to provide a service-learning experience for social work students. “It’s a great opportunity for students to learn about themselves, to learn about the impact of a traumatic and challenging life experience, working with other professionals who may have different ideas about what is valuable in terms of work and learning, about community organizations, agency functioning and teamwork,” she said. “I hear it over and over and over again, students saying ‘it has changed my life.'”
Funding for Camp Oo-U-La is provided by GFBF’s annual Boot Drive. The GFBF offers programming year-round on prevention and education as well as support and recovery for burn survivors in the state of Georgia.