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Firefighters help burned boy get fresh start

By Mackenzie Ryan

Florida Today

Published: Tuesday, Sept. 20 2011 8:45 a.m. MDT

MELBOURNE, Fla. — This time, Brad and Victoria Maddox hoped things would be different.

A few weeks ago, the family moved here from North Carolina, where their son Isaac had briefly attended kindergarten. Their memories were still raw: of students, seeing Isaac's burn scars and not understanding; of the name calling and shoving.

Isaac couldn't focus, he was having trouble learning. He even tried to run away during a school fire alarm.

His parents didn't want to take any chances that it could happen again.

On Monday, Isaac's family —along with staffers at Sherwood Elementary School and members of the Melbourne Fire Department — introduced the 5-year-old to classmates in a way they hoped would promote acceptance and understanding. They wanted to stop any bullying before it started.

Firefighters talked with kindergartners about burn victims before watching a video explaining that they were "just like you."

"Today he's going to be an honorary firefighter," Deputy Fire Marshal Angel Condre said of Isaac. "He's one of us. When you see him, treat him the same way you would treat one of us. With respect."

As Isaac walked through the door, accompanied by the firefighters, kindergartners clapped.

Apprehensive, Isaac leaned into a firefighter, then ducked behind the door. Slowly, firefighterscoaxed him out. His father took Isaac by the hand, then picked him up and carried him toward his classmates.

Isaac buried his head into his father's shoulder.

"Do you all remember your first day of school?" Conde said. "Did you all feel this way on the first day?"

"Yes," the students said in unison.

School-aged burn victims often struggle with acceptance among their peers. Scars can sometimes be visible.

If their classmates are "not equipped with the proper tools to handle those differences, sometimes it can become negative," said Amy Clark, family services coordinator at the nonprofit Phoenix Society for Burn Survivors.

At Isaac's age, children might fill in gaps in their understanding with their imagination. And their imaginations can be vivid, such as suggesting that a burn scar is contagious.

"If they're not given (the correct) information, they can create all kinds of stories that can be very hurtful for that child and cause a lot of stress and anxiety," Clark said, noting that can lead to isolation and depression.

It's why the "school re-entry" process is so important, why education and awareness are key, and why the Melbourne Fire Department agreed to help introduce Isaac to his new school.

Teachers also said they were committed to smoothing the transition — and to taking a firm stance on any bullying that might occur.

Already, kindergarten teacher Sasha Hensler corrected a boy who thought Isaac's scars could catch on fire.

"They don't understand," she said.

On Friday, Isaac's family took him to Wickham Park. "Watch me! Watch me!" Isaac yelled from the top of the playground, before rocketing down a slide.

Then it was off to the jungle gym, the lights in his sneakers flashing as he made his way across the playground.

"Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes," he shouted, pumping his arms after making it across.

Aside from his medical condition —the ongoing surgeries as he grows, the precautionary steps to keep him from overheating since he cannot sweat, the always-visible scars —Isaac is like any other kid.

"He's smart, he's funny," said his father, Brad.

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