Union Front: Burn Camp Provides a Great Experience

Alonzo More, 14, Isaiah Struck, 10, and Jaques Williams, 15, say there is a lot for campers to do at Black Lake, but just about everyone loves the opportunity to swim.

It’s All About Fun for Special Kids at Black Lake

You could be excused if you mistakenly thought a catastrophe had hit the UAW Walter and May Reuther Family Education Center in northern Michigan on one Friday night in late February.

The firetruck parade is a time-honored tradition of the Burn Camp as the participants look forward to their ride around the education center.

After all, all manner of emergency equipment was gathered on the Black Lake property, from fire engines and other firefighting equipment to ambulances and police vehicles. There was a police dog and handler on the grounds and the sounds of static-filled chatter from two-way radios seemed to indicate something bad was happening. Emergency workers were leading children from the guest rooms to waiting vehicles as red and blue lights danced off the buildings at the center and in the snow.

However, the children were smiling. And laughing. And goofing around and doing what kids do. And those smiles are what keeps the Great Lakes Burn Camp for Burn-Injured Children going. The burn camp is a twice-annual event for Michigan burn survivors who get to spend four days among their peers who face the same challenges. Some of these come in the form of impolite stares at their injuries from strangers; others are the many reconstructive surgeries many of the burn survivors undergo. In some cases, they are the only student who is a burn survivor in their entire school system.

“It’s actually therapy for the kids,” said Mike Longenecker, camp director and a retired Jackson, Michigan, firefighter. “It’s huge for their social well-being and their self-esteem.”

But Longenecker is quick to point out that the camp isn’t about injuries or the tragedies that caused them – it’s about fun. This is the fourth year the winter camp has been held at Black Lake.

“They love it here,” Longenecker said as the 40 campers enjoyed a spaghetti dinner in the Black Lake dining hall. “This place is special to them.”

The previously mentioned Fire Truck Parade kicks off the start of the camp and the children participate in arts and crafts, swim in the pool, enjoy hayrides, hovercraft rides, winter sports such as snow machines and dog sleds (weather permitting), billiards, ping-pong, board games, basketball, volleyball and other activities. The camp is chaperoned and monitored by emergency personnel and nurses.

Isaiah Struck, 10, of Bay City, Michigan, Alonzo More, 14, and Jaques Williams, 15, both of Detroit, all agreed that the Olympic-sized swimming pool is a top attraction. But more than being able to swim in the winter, the camp is about hanging out with friends and not be self-conscious about their appearance.

Amber and Ian Burkhart met at the camp and fell in love. Now married, they return to help out as counselors.

“The best thing about the burn camp is you don’t get made fun of,” Struck said before participating in a snowball fight as he and others waited to board the hayrides. “Here, everybody is alike.”

Longenecker said that as the campers turn 18, many of them come back as staff, like Ian and Amber Burkhart, who attended their first burn camps in 1997 and 1998, respectively. They met at camp, fell in love, got married and now return as counselors.

“They get to know that they are not alone,” Amber Burkhart said. “There are others going through the same thing.”

Ian Burkhart said the kids love coming to Black Lake because their previous camp location was exceptionally crowded.

“The place is awesome,” he added. “The kids love it.”

The camp is free and open to burn survivors from ages 6 to 17 (18 if still in school). This year the camp made an exception for a 5-year-old local Onaway, Michigan, boy.

“Our thing is, if a child needs to come to camp, we’ll make it happen,” Longenecker said. “What we do is special.”

The UAW National Ford Department agrees and holds a golf outing fundraiser for the camp during its staff meeting up at Black Lake. Last year, it raised $7,300 for the children.

Hayrides were just one of many activities for the campers. Camp officials
appreciate how special the staff at Black Lake makes the campers feel.

“We’re honored to be among the many organizations that help fund this very worthwhile event,” said UAW Vice President Jimmy Settles, who directs the union’s National Ford Department. “We know how much the kids enjoy Black Lake and we enjoy seeing them up here making great use of our facility.”

The staff at Black Lake has also been a pleasure for camp organizers to work with, Longenecker said.

“The UAW has been amazing,” he added. “The center has just rallied for us.”

Looking to help the campers? Donations can be mailed to:

The Great Lakes Burn Camp
P.O. Box 6189
Jackson, MI 49204

For additional information, visit, greatlakesburncamp.org