ALEX, one of the 23 campers who attended Fire and Ice campus at Oceanwood in Old Orchard Beach last weekend.

ALEX, one of the 23 campers who attended Fire and Ice campus at Oceanwood in Old Orchard Beach last weekend.

OLD ORCHARD BEACH

A long the shoreline of the beach on Sunday, children and their supervisors walked together with horses, the snow-covered sand disappearing with the rolling winter tide.

The children have all suffered from burn injuries, and are part of a yearly camp called Fire and Ice — four days of activities hosted by the Portland Firefighters Children’s Burn Foundation to increase confidence and provide ongoing support for survivors of trauma.

For the second year in a row, the program is being hosted at Oceanwood, 17 Royal St. The participants, whose ages range from 10 to 18, come from all over the United States, sharing in common their traumatic experiences and the will to overcome the resulting challenges.

Their arrival on Thursday was prompted by a vast array of activities to keep them busy and learning.

“We’re providing the space and recreational materials for their program to use,” said Kassandra Kane, director of Oceanwood. “We are a nonprofit organization that runs year-round. We collaborate with other nonprofit organizations and educational institutions to work on programming with them to be a community resource.”

The program, which was started in 2005 by David

Petruccelli, provides a safe space for children and their families to learn skills needed for adulthood.

Therapeutic horseback riding, for example, teaches respect for other living creatures, while learning how to cook food outdoors teaches basic survival skills.

“After a number of years as a counselor and assistant director at a burn camp based out of Connecticut, I wanted to have another opportunity to provide children with support,” said Petruccelli. “We didn’t want to compete for the same kids with another summer camp, so we decided to try a winter camp in Maine. The weather can be a challenge, but it can provide great activities.”

According to Sheldon Gregoire, program director of the foundation, the group of 23 campers come from mostly big cities, and have little to no experience in the Maine winter woods. Through the program, they spend three days and four nights at Oceanwood.

“Up until last year, we always stayed in a hotel each year with the kids,” Gregoire said. “We found this camp two years ago for a location, and had such a great experience. We’re looking to make it long term, because they’ve provided us with everything we need.”

In addition to horse therapy and survival skills, participants walk in snowshoes, learn to tie survival knots, and go rock climbing, snow tubing, snowboarding and skiing. These activities, although expensive, come at no cost to those participating.” The campers and their families do not pay a dime to get here,” Gregoire said. “The foundation pays 100 percent from the camp. We also get donations from other local burn camps like New London Firefighters Burn Foundation. If we have to purchase any food off property, they will donate all that.”

Oceanwood, which offers 133 acres – 33 of which are trails for horseback riding – uses its natural landscape as an integral part of program activities. According to Kane, people of all mental, physical and emotional backgrounds can be found conversing at the facility.

A variety of other camps, such as grandparents camp, single-parent family camp and children with disabilities camp, can be found collaborating on ideas, sharing traumatic occurrences and healing through the one thing that brings them together: The human experience.

“I have a 4-year-old daughter, and she’s been here her entire life,” said Kane, who explained that her child’s exposure to those coping with disabilities has taught her kindness and acceptance of others. “She will see someone in a wheelchair, and doesn’t bat an eye. She plays dodgeball with kids who are visibly burned, and doesn’t even notice they’re different.”

This was the fourth year of participation in the camp for 13-year-old Frantzcia Saintil. Her nurses told her about it during her initial recovery of healing from facial burns. Each year, her excitement to return is driven by her favorite part of participating.

“My favorite part of coming to camp is seeing everyone grow up and become unique individuals. I look up to the older kids, because I see that they have gone through their challenges and made it through,” she said. “Overcoming my challenges has been hard, but I’m learning that confidence is key. I’m just like every other kid in the world; I’m no different.”

One unique aspect of the event includes therapy horseback riding, which takes place both on the beach and along the acres of trails. Jen Hayes, horse program director at Oceanwood, worked hard to purchase horses and get them ready to be in a therapeutic environment. Regardless of a child’s disability, his or her riding lesson is treated no differently, she said.

“As these children grow and achieve new markers in life challenges, they grow and advance in their riding,” Hayes said. “I’ve worked with individuals who are visually impaired and hearing impaired. We have several groups of people dealing with PTSD who ride here also. Anyone and everyone can come here; we have an opendoor welcome policy.”

Ray Hackett, an employee at North Road Farm in Fremont, New Hampshire, said his attendance at the event sparked a hopeful reminder as to why he has decided to dedicate his life to working with horses and children with disabilities.

“I was talking to one young man, a survivor of burn trauma, who wanted nothing to do with riding. He continuously told me there was no way it was going to happen,” Hackett said. “The next day, him and I talked as we walked the horses on the beach. After a while, he decided to try it out, and gave me a big smile and said, ‘Thank you.’

“It was that moment that really stuck with me. This is why I do this. When they all come together to support one another, it’s then that they can truly be themselves.”

For more information, visit maineburnsurvivors.org. If you are interested in attending Oceanwood for your own nonprofit organization, visit oceanwood.org or call 934-9655.

Journaltribune.com


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