Tooele teen Shaye Graham spent years trying to cover the burn scars he acquired as a toddler. Today, those scars have become his personal trademark.
Shaye, now 14 and a freshman at Tooele High School, received third-degree burns on his feet when he was placed in a bathtub of hot water at age three. He spent three months in the hospital, had skin grafts taken from his thighs, and then entered physical therapy to re-learn how to walk.
For the next four or so years, Shaye went to great lengths to cover his scars, his mother, Amy Wilcox, said. If he had to wear sandals, he also wore socks. This began to change about the time Shaye turned 7 and began attending summer camps designed for burn victims. It was the first time Shaye had ever met another child with scars like his own.
Shaye has attended a summer camp for burn victims every year since, and has become something of a leader among his peers, with camp counselors recognizing him for talking to his peers about bullying. Last week, he attended International Burn Camp in Washington, D.C., an exclusive event only specially selected campers are invited to attend.
The camp, which is sponsored by the International Association of Fire Fighters, was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to visit national monuments, museums and landmarks. Burn survivors ages 13 to 15 and volunteer counselors travel from all across the United States and Canada to attend.
“I’m loving it,” Shaye said last Friday, while still attending the camp. “I’m doing stuff that I never thought I would do.”
In addition to D.C.-specific events such as a tour of the White House, the campers also participated in traditional camp activities, such as a ropes course and a “carnival day” with bounce houses and cotton candy, said Rico Petruecelli, the assistant camp director. The campers are selected as representatives of regional burn camps throughout North America. This year, 44 teens were nominated to attend.
Shaye had shown interest in attending International Burn Camp a year ago when he first learned of the event, Wilcox said. But he was aware that campers had to be nominated to attend, and didn’t think it was particularly likely that he would be the one chosen from his region.
“He said, ‘aw, maybe, but I’m not going to get my hopes up,’” Wilcox said. When the call came to say he was the chosen nominee this year, Shaye was ecstatic, she added.
Where possible, Shaye said he took time to talk to his peers at the camp about bullying, just as he often does at the other camps he has attended. It’s a favorite topic of his, he said, because kids with burn scars are often stared at and, when among less mature peers, sometimes mocked.
“I tell them, if [the bullies] are going to be like that, they aren’t worth your words,” Shaye said.
While his own scars are not easily noticed — Shaye said they are covered by his shoes and socks most of the time, but might be visible around his ankles when he sits in class — the experience has impacted his own personality and shown him what kind of attributes he would like to develop as an adult, Shaye said.
His siblings, also, likely influenced his outspoken opinions on bullying, Wilcox said. Both his older sister and younger brother have dealt with bullies in the past, and Shaye was quick to come to their aide — for a time, even walking from junior high to his former elementary school to pick up his younger brother and walk him home.
“He just doesn’t like it when kids bully,” Wilcox said.
At home and at school, Shaye participates in the same activities his peers enjoy — he plays on the high school football team and likes video games, Wilcox said. He’s also helpful around the house and helps to care for his siblings. He’s a good kid, she said, and she has no doubt he could help other burn survivors in the future.
“When he has a goal, he sets his mind to it and does very well with it,” Wilcox said.
And one day in the future, one of those goals may even include volunteering at International Burn Camp, Shaye said.
“I don’t think I’ll be able to forget this,” he said.