Omer is 20 now. That means she’s been dealing with the aftermath of severe burns on her face and upper body for half her life.
Five years ago, she first went to Camp Sababa, the only burn camp in Israel.
“I was very apprehensive about going on my own, but when I got there, I realized how lucky I was to be in such a wonderful, perfect, happy place with people who understood me,” Omer said.
This year, she returned to camp, held March 27 to 31, as a counselor.
Camp Sababa began in 2009 as a project of the not-for-profit Burn Advocates Network headed by Sam Davis of Tenafly, a partner in the Teaneck law firm Davis, Saperstein & Salomon. Through the years, more than 500 children from 6 to 17, coming from various backgrounds, religions, and cultures, have taken part in this unique camp.
BAN also has founded burn camps in India, Brazil, and Haiti, and it is planning a new one in Ukraine; its leaders will come to Israel for training.
Staffed mainly by occupational and physical therapists, psychologists, and social workers from Schneider Children’s Medical Center and volunteers from other Israeli hospitals, Camp Sababa is held before Passover each year in Kfar Galim youth village, south of Haifa.
The beachside location affords the opportunity for campers to go surfing and swimming in the Mediterranean, their tender skin protected from the sun by full wetsuits.
During the pandemic, the camp met virtually. Mr. Davis said he was pleased to be back in person this year.
He tells the story of leaving Ben-Gurion Airport just as the facility was shut down by a labor strike as part of the anti-judicial overhaul protests that have been rocking the country. Traffic near the airport was backed up for two miles.
The scene reminded him of landing in Haiti exactly two years ago, on the latest of a series of humanitarian missions he’s undertaken there with burn surgeons from Israel’s Sheba Medical Center. There was civil unrest in Haiti at the time, and because roads were blocked with burning tires, the driver took a roundabout route to the hospital, where BAN had established a clinic after the 2010 earthquake.
In both situations, Mr. Davis said, he and his companions got where they needed to go safely, albeit later than expected. “The Israelis are uniquely suited to pivot on a dime,” he said. “They get the mission done and don’t look down.”
This year, because Camp Sababa coincided with Ramadan, most Muslim campers couldn’t come. “We’ll make it up to them,” Mr. Davis said.
With just 28 campers — it’s usually closer to 50 — the decision was made to invite mothers as well.
“This is unusual in burn camps,” Mr. Davis said. “The six mothers who came formed a cohesive group and held their own sessions, where they opened their hearts and shared inner thoughts. What was so special was the bonding they did over their shared experiences in caring for a burn survivor child.”
He discovered that every mother admitted feeling “some form of guilt about how her child was burned, whether or not the child was burned in her presence. None had ever had the chance to express that in any other forum.
“The secret sauce of burn camp is this sharing, the feeling of knowing you are not alone. That same principle works for the mothers as well.”
Efrat, the mother of 7-year-old Sapir, who was burned on the entire left side of her body about a year ago, described her excitement at getting a call inviting her to accompany Sapir to Camp Sababa.
“From the moment Sam greeted us outside Schneider for the ride to camp, we knew it was going to be fantastic,” she said. Her remarks, in Hebrew, were recorded during the camp session.
“It’s like the Garden of Eden here,” Efrat exclaimed. “Not only is it fun for Sapir and all the other children — they feel comfortable showing one another their scars, something they can’t do anywhere else — but for us, the mothers; we suddenly found kindred souls to talk to about what happened. At home our focus is totally on our children, and here we could focus on ourselves and support one another. We bonded immediately. It was amazing.”
The idea of a burn camp is that in addition to healing the children’s physical injuries it is important to heal their spirits outside the hospital or rehab setting.
To that end, Camp Sababa is focused on fun. In addition to aquatic activities, trips, and other special events, the children have the opportunity to use adaptive musical instruments and recreational equipment supplied by BAN. One example is Strumstick, a string instrument that can be played by children who are missing fingers or hands.
“The theme of our camp this year was cruising to different places in the world, and the last day’s destination was Jamaica,” Mr. Davis said.
“I brought funky Jamaican hats, and our closing celebration that night featured the famous Israeli reggae band Young Israelites — whose bass player, Tal Eshel, is the son of Yuliana Eshel, the occupational therapist who is our camp director. It was a beautiful, colorful event.”
The party was joined by burn specialists from Sheba and Schneider hospitals who came to greet their former patients.
Some of the campers and counselors, including Omer, still are being treated in the I-PEARLS — Israel Pediatric Aesthetic and Reconstructive Laser Surgery — center of excellence that BAN opened three years ago at Sheba under the direction of Drs. Josef Haik and Arie Orenstein.
I-PEARLS uses Israeli-developed fractional CO2 ablative lasers to reduce the impact of scars in burned children. These lasers can make scars less noticeable and ease the uncomfortably tight contractures they cause, even “enabling a child with facial contractures to smile without effort,” Mr. Davis explained. “Camp Sababa heals the psyche and soul; I-PEARLS heals the scars.
“The burn camp and laser center were meant to create a synergistic outcome for kids with psychological and physical scars from burns,” he continued. “Our theory was that by addressing both these aspects of burn survivors there would be a multiplier effect in terms of recovery and returning to a normal childhood.”
Mr. Davis noted that one of the most gratifying aspects of returning to Camp Sababa year after year is witnessing the progression of the earliest campers.
“A girl named Yarden was our camper for four years,” he said. “She had severe arm, shoulder, and elbow burns and was very shy and withdrawn. The fifth year, she didn’t come until the third day. And when she arrived, she was wearing an army uniform. In Israel, when you join the army that means you’re mainstream. That’s when we knew Yarden was truly transformed from a burn victim to a burn survivor.”
This year, Yarden returned to Camp Sababa as a volunteer. “After the army, she chose a career in improv and standup,” Mr. Davis said. “This girl went from being isolated and depressed to bringing light and love and hope to other people. Once upon a time, she couldn’t look you in the face — and now she stands on a stage and does improvisation.”
Anyone interested in sponsoring or participating in a BAN mission or burn camp, or knows a child who would benefit from BAN’s services, should call Mr. Davis at (201) 220-3908 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.