Some people have good-luck charms or keepsakes that mean a lot to them. For Anoka teenager Sam Hanks, it’s a bracelet he always wears — a token from a summer camp for kids who’ve sustained burn injuries.
After attending the camp for three years, 15-year-old Hanks is about to age out of Camp RED, but he’s sending other kids there thanks to $5,000 from a fundraising event he organized in November.
“My original goal was $1,000, which [supports] one camper, and then when I saw the $5,000, I was amazed and super-surprised with how well it turned out, of how such a small idea came to a big ending,” Hanks said.
The camp, in Crosslake, Minn., and free to children with burn injuries, is put on by the nonprofit Firefighters for Healing, which provides resources for burn injury survivors. Hanks was introduced to the organization as he was recovering from a bonfire accident in 2016.
It was the summer before sixth grade and Hanks was spending time with friends outside one of their homes. Hanks was watching over a bonfire when some spray paint cans ended up in the flames, unnoticed.
“And then they all went inside and I stayed outside to stay by the fire so it wouldn’t get out of control, and then the spray paint cans blew up and I was right next to the fire,” Hanks said.
“And that’s pretty much all I remember about it.”
Hanks sustained second- and third-degree burns to his face, arms, legs and throat. He spent nearly two weeks at Hennepin Healthcare recovering with regular bandage changes, an extremely painful process.
As part of his recovery, Hanks took walks to stretch his skin and used stress balls and puzzles to help his hands recover. Better than puzzles, he liked playing video games, like Mario Kart and Super Smash Brothers on the Wii.
Near the end of his stay, he met Jake LaFerriere, a former firefighter and founder of Firefighters for Healing, who was there to provide support and gifts. LaFerriere was conducting a search and rescue in a building in southeast Minneapolis in 2010 when he was hit by a backdraft, sustaining second-, third- and fourth-degree burns.
A fundraising event to support LaFerriere and his captain, who was also at the scene, got LaFerriere thinking about two young boys he met in the hospital who didn’t have the same support he did. As a result, some of the money raised was used to send kids in a burn unit to a camp in Colorado for burn survivors.
“So that’s essentially when the organization was really born,” LaFerriere said.
Now, the organization’s Camp RED gives children and teens a chance to meet other kids who have had similar experiences.
Attending camp made a difference for Hanks, who experienced teasing and strange looks since going to school after his injury.
“And then going to camp made me realize that it doesn’t really matter how you look or any of that. It’s just how you act and how you treat other people,” Hanks said.
“And that makes such a huge impact on people and not what you look like.”
Hanks wanted to provide other kids with the same opportunity.
“Because it was my last year and then I won’t be able to go next year, I wanted to get other kids to be able to go and have the same kind of experience that I had,” said Hanks, a freshman at Anoka High School.
With the help of friends and his community, Hanks rallied with his hockey team, Anoka A Bantams, to hold a hockey event. Donation were made onsite and online for Firefighters for Healing (firefightersforhealing.org).
“He’s really made some lifelong friends attending the camp,” said Hanks’ mom, Deanna. “It’s just really been such a great experience for him.”
LaFerriere, who attended Hanks’ event, said he’s proud of and grateful to Hanks.
“He ran with it. I mean, what kids at his age are even doing that, right?” LaFerriere said.
Though Hanks won’t be attending Camp RED as a camper anymore, he plans to apply to be a counselor when he’s old enough. The younger kids paid a lot of attention to the older kids, he said, and he liked being a role model. He also hopes to make his hockey fundraiser into an annual event.
“He’s worked really hard, both physically and mentally, to work through this process,” Deanna said. “And he’s had a lot of support along the way. And we’re really proud of where he’s been and how far he’s come.
“And I know he wants to continue to do more,” said his mom, “and so we continue to support him in any way. We’re very, very proud of him.”
Imani Cruzen is local freelancer writer.