(This is the speech I’m giving tonight at our first annual Gala. It’s the next best thing to being there.)
It’s best to begin with the children–our burn survivors. I hope you have had some time to see and engage our burn children.
They are our galaxy of bright stars.
Have you heard their stories? Many of our burn-kids had never told their story before, to anyone. Some of the stories seemed impossible to be built into words. But we knew the words were there and by listening attentively in a safe harbor of non-judgmental love, the stories began to surface at an event that we call “Catching Courage.”
Their courage was tangible though it’s hard to speak when your spirit has been broken.
Our family has a story and it was very hard to tell even to ourselves at home.
Here’s our story.
It was a typical family Sat. afternoon going from a swimming meet to a soccer match.
We were on the expressway when our tire detreaded and the car started flipping 3/4 times.
There were 4 of us in the car–Ryan (7), Tyler (2), Ron and me.
The car burst into flames. Ryan and I caught fire first. And then it spread thru the car.
We were all burning. Ron was able to reach Tyler and pull him out of the fire. But Ryan was stuck in his seat belt and there was no way to pull him free before the fire took him.
Ron, Tyler and I were flown 600 miles away and a quarter of our bodies were burned.
Even though we know we’ll never get over this, we’re still here and our family is getting stronger at the broken places.
15 years after Ryan died, we saw it was the right time to build our foundation–Ryan Shines–in honor of our son.
One purpose of our foundation is to ensure that no burn child is left behind.
We have created a safe place where burn survivors can heal.
It’s a place where we don’t run ahead of them demanding they keep up with us.
We communicate face to face on the same level.
And when we hear them begin to talk about their day from hell, when the world reversed its rotation, we are there with them.
And not only us, but the firefighters were in the center of everything.
There are few men and women who wake up every morning to an unscripted day; a day that could be their last.
Firefighters are born, they’re not made. Their kind of courage and two scoops of craziness is deep in their DNA.
They run toward death while everyone else runs away. They have the gift of not thinking about themselves first.
Compassion is at the heart of their work.
And compassion is at the heart of our work with them. When I first opened my eyes to it, I had no idea that Alabama is 2nd in the nation in suicide over work-related death.
You understand I’m talking about our firefighters.
It breaks my heart.
So many mothers losing their sons and daughters fighting every day like our family did to make sense of it. But, you know, it doesn’t make sense.
Now. Imagine these 2 groups–our pediatric burn children and firefighters–spending a weekend or week together. Without saying a word, they recognize that they are standing on common ground. It creates a whole ‘new normal’ for them.
The bond that began the day of the fire, continues even thru tonite.
It happens at all of our Catching Courage events.
And the bond between them is indestructible.
One thing I’ve learned over these years is that when something awful happens,
“Why?” is almost always the wrong question.
When the roof caves in or a trap door springs, the only question worth asking is “Where do we go from here?”
And however we may answer that question, part of the answer will always be “together.”
Aaron’s life was 24 days old, when his biological father submerged him in scalding water, burning over 45% of his small body.
The doctors gave him less than a 10% chance of surviving.
Aaron was placed into a medically induced coma and underwent skin grafting, where they removed skin from his hip and used it to reconstruct his right ear.
Returning home after 4 months in the hospital, Aaron wore tight, full-body compression garments which caused him pain and severe discomfort.
He had a hard time sleeping, keeping food down, as he struggled to grow.
The doctors prepared his mother for the years of hard work ahead including a limited range of motion, significant scarring, and numerous surgeries.
With the skills and talents of medical professionals and overwhelming love from his family, Aaron survived and thrived.
After a traumatic injury, there are many difficult questions for a young man to understand.
Fortunately, Aaron enjoyed many visits to burn camp, where he learned that there were other children who had also suffered burns; allowing him to understand that he was not facing his challenges alone.
Today, at age 16, Aaron has grown into a happy, healthy young man who is realizing that he can do and become whatever he chooses.
He is still an active member of the Burn Institute family and now helps others facing the same challenges he once did.
He believes all people have challenges and that his burns are part of his life, but not something that defines him.
BTW-(If this is something that you would like to support, please visit us at www.ryanshines.com or follow us on FB and IG @ryanshinesburnfoundation
A South Dakota newspaper tells the story of firefighter Austin Whitney, 23, who is in the long and painful process of recovering from second and third burns over his body after the Coal Canyon wildfire.
Austin was trapped in the massive fire along with four fellow firefighters.
“What’s helping his recovery most,” his father said, “is the focused power of his mind.
His spirits are up and over the moon! Five days into his recovery Austin told me that this incident won’t stop him from being a firefighter. ”
“It was very hard for the family to wrap their hearts around the awful news of their son’s burning.
“A lot of emotions were streaming through my head at the time,” Robert said.
“We didn’t know how bad it was or what was going on, and it turned everything topsy- turvy. Everyone was frantic.”
Austin is following in the firefighting footsteps of his father, grandfather, aunts, and uncles.
His first season was with the “South Dakota Wildland Fire Suppression Division,” a state firefighting agency.
But Austin had started fighting fires when he turned 18, joining the “Pringle Volunteer Fire Department”–the same department as his father and grandfather.
Then, he joined the “Cascade Volunteer Fire Department” the following year, and is co-captain now.
“His infusion of courage is growing in so many of us,” said Austin’s father.
“I am grateful that our lives would converge this way. What a wonderful world!”
(Thank you to Larry Kramer for his contribution to this blog).
It’s Saturday, October 13, 2001, roughly 3:00 in the pm, exactly 32 days after September 11; the horror of all horrors, my deepest rung of hell to-date. We’re on highway 83, along the Mexican border, in Texas, driving 70 miles an hour.
Out of nowhere, I hear a loud Bang!
Backfire? Bomb? My head exploding?
I notice Ron out of the corner of my eye.
He is tightening his grip on the steering wheel, trying to steer.
He loses control of the wheel. We are minus the tread on our rear tire.
There is no way to handle the crisis we’re in, our family’s SUV has started to skid.
Then it overturns.
We are rolling.
The car flips three or four times. We finally slide to a stop on the other side of the overpass.
That’s when our car burst into flames!
And my family and I are trapped inside.
We rescued everyone but Ryan.He died in the hellish fire.
We experienced all the pain there is, physically and emotionally. Light couldn’t crowbar its way into the dark night of the soul.
Did I tell you that we had two more little boys–Trenton and Colton. They were, along with Tyler, at the center of our recovery.
Moving to Alabama
We were in a fishbowl in South Texas. Most every day someone would stare, or ask about the accident.
We were known around town as the “sad family.” Alabama felt like the right place to keep moving forward.
We enjoyed life on Lake Martin, homeschooling the boys for 5 years. It has been our refuge and I have done my most creative work there. It is our home and a quiet place to remember Ryan.
The boys are in school in Birmingham now, it’s where we have found community. It is also the place where we connect with pediatric burn survivors and firefighters.
I’ve been through hell and back and I’ve wondered if there is a way I can offer what I’ve learned over these 16 years. I began writing down my feelings, and thoughts.
Suddenly I realized that I had all the makings of a blog. I publish my blog every week on Thursday.
It provides a way to help myself as I map my journey; but more than that, it gives me the opportunity to help others in their struggles.
Our Epic Trip
One of our sons suggested that we take a long learning vacation.
Everybody agreed. We spent almost every evening dreaming and talking about where and when. We decided to take a trip around the world.
I had been home-schooling the boys anyway, and this would be an epic field trip. We made a list of the countries each of us wanted to visit, and everyone prepared reports on their countries.
The trip was beautiful and challenging. We were all together. We were laminated.
The Camping Connection
We knew we wanted to establish a Pediatric Burn Camp to honor Ryan, and while we were exploring our options we discovered that firefighters created and ran burn camps around the country.
They invested heart and soul into the camps and the children! That grew into a partnership between our burn foundation (RyanShines) and firefighters.
We needed chaperones for our first fishing event (“Catching Courage”).
Guess who stepped into the spotlight?
They didn’t need a lot of instruction.
They are “the naturals.”
Their way with our burn kids is enveloped in respect and genuine friendship.
Picture it: two heroes sitting together ‘sharing with understanding.’
RyanShines Burn Foundation
I love the sound of these two words that are hooked together like a train: RyanShines!
It is named for Ryan, of course.
But it comes from a work of art at the International Museum of Art and Science in McAllen, TX.
It is a twenty-foot mosaic and the designer dedicated it to Ryan.
The mosaic is called “Ryan Shines.”
Out of that holy name came every good Gift that shines on the children and firefighters.
Our mission is that “no burned child be left behind, and no firefighter will be forgotten.”
Every year we take pediatric burn survivors and firefighters to Islamorada in the Florida keys.
The first year we took 7 firefighters and 6 burn survivors. This year, our 3rd, we are taking 40 firefighters and 10 burn survivors, from 6 states.
Peer Support Team for Firefighters
We realized that our firefighters are first to a fire. They rescue children, adults, and pets.
But who rescues the firefighters? Who stands beside them? Firefighters undergo injuries, grief, risk, fear, and death. Alabama is #2 in suicides over work-related deaths in the United States.
Ryan Shines is a proud partner in our state’s first Alabama Firefighter Peer Support team(ALFFPS). We are talking about ‘healing by listening,’ and putting them together with their peer-brothers who understand what really goes on in the body, soul, and life of a firefighter.
“Catching Courage” Events
These outdoor events consist of fishing, hunting, kayaking, snorkeling, swimming with dolphins, and any team-building with pediatric burn survivors and firefighters.
This year we hosted our first Catching Courage Family Camp.
They are all designed to create healing, developing bonds between the participants, and building lasting relationships.
Our 5-year Plan
The future is as unlimited as the horizon. Here’s what we see ahead…
Organizing 4 Catching Courage events per year in each of the 50 states.
Taking a team of 4 firefighters from each state, each year to our Catching Courage event in the Keys.
Creating a statewide Firefighter Peer Support Team in every state that needs one.
Growing burn children into good, honest, productive and confident citizens.