SALT LAKE CITY — Cereena Stacey was nervous about coming to camp.
She was also excited to spend five days horseback riding, exercising, doing crafts and playing games. And because the other kids at "burn camp" would also be children who had been burned, the wrap on her injured leg wouldn't matter.
"I like coming to burn camp because I get to meet other kids who have been burned like me and make new friends," the 7-year-old said with a grin, flanked on both sides by other girls assigned to her cabin.
Cereena and her new friends all dressed up as animals from the movie "Zootopia" for the camp's movie-themed evening Sunday, then paraded out together to music and applause for pictures with costumed princesses.
"It's more fun than I imagined," the girl from American Falls, Idaho, said happily.
On the surface, the "red carpet" event marking the halfway point of the University of Utah Burn Center's annual children's camp may have seemed like just a fun way to usher campers into the dining hall for a spaghetti dinner. But like the rest of the week's events, the activity was an exercise in confidence and courage to prepare the children to live in a world where they may be misunderstood, stared at, afraid or bullied.
"These kids are all burn survivors, they're all self conscious about their scars and body image and the capabilities of their body," said camp director Kristen Quinn. "This is all about what we've practiced, about how to walk with confidence."
The annual camp for child burn survivors — named Camp Nah Nah Mah, the Ute phrase for "together in friendship" — hosts children ages 6 to 12 from the intermountain area. Now in its 17th year, the camp hosted 57 attendees from multiple states, 20 of whom were participating for the first time.
Burn camp is just one of the survivor support programs put on by the University of Utah Burn Center, ranging from a preschool day camp to a river trip for teens to a retreat for adults.
And in addition to the lessons the children learn — including sessions on exercise, stress management and rehearsing responses to use when someone asks about their burns — simply being around other burn survivors is a priceless experience, Quinn said.
"Knowing you're not the only one with scars, you're not the only who who has to wear pressure garments or splints, or do physical therapy is a huge confidence booster for the kids," Quinn said. "We have kids that show up with long sleeves and pants that they say they have to wear in the pool, but after the first afternoon swimming, they're in their bathing suits just like everybody else."
Nichon Porter, 21, of West Jordan, grew up attending the different programs, including burn camp. Now he's a counselor, working alongside some of the camp leaders who inspired him, and this year is assigned a cabin full of 11-year-old boys.
"(Burn camp) actually helped me a lot in life, so I wanted to give back and set an example to these kids because I've been in their shoes and I know what they're going through," Porter said.
Porter's hands were burned when he was an infant. Until he attended the camp at age 6, he felt he was the only child living with the physical and emotional scars his injury caused him.
As a counselor, Porter especially appreciates helping the children in his care during the group sessions that helped him so much as a child. He still relies on the skills he learned during those conversations, he said.
"It helps the kids express their feelings, they get to open up to everyone in the circle," Porter said. "I was taught by the counselors how to stay calm counting to 10, drinking water, taking deep breaths, walking away from a situation."
Luke Thrall, 10, of Salt Lake City, looks forward to burn camp each summer, where he reconnects with good friends and looks forward to meeting new campers.
For his favorite camp activities, Luke says the rock wall is "the funnest thing here." And when it comes to things he has learned through the years, he says camp has taught him that if someone stares at him or is rude to him, he can stand tall, hold his shoulders back, and tell them to stop.
Luke has been attending the programs since his was 4 years old and says he would encourage any other child who has been burned to do the same.
"It's really special to a lot of burn kids," Luke said.
The camp is free for the children, funded through donations and staffed mostly by volunteers, Quinn said. The Boy Scouts of America lets the group use one of its camp facilities up Millcreek Canyon for free. Different firefighter unions pay for, prepare and serve dinner to the campers each night. Donations to the burn center help cover travel costs for campers who need it.
Sunday's dinner was provided by the West Valley Professional Firefighters Union. Zackery Hatch, union president, said visiting burn camp is a powerful experience for the retired and active firefighters who volunteer.
"It's pretty neat to see the other side of it," Hatch said. "When we're on a call, it's pretty emergent, we don't get to see what happens three or four or five, or even a year or two later."
Those wanting more information or wanting to donate to the Nah Nah Meh burn camp can contact the University of Utah Burn Center. Updates from this year's camp are being shared on the center's Facebook page.