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In South Africa, there are 1.6 million cases a year of children with burns. These shocking statistics stem largely from informal settlements. Sadly, safety precautions at home are not exercised as much. Of course, this has devastating physical and psychosocial costs for the children living there. We don’t really see burn survivors in public spaces because of the shock surrounding their “disfiguration”. It’s out of the realm of what a lot of us can digest. Needless to say, these courageous people exist. Like anyone else, they deserve a shot at hope and life in the face of such a plight. And that’s exactly what the Avela Foundation strives to offer.

How a volunteer job helping burn survivors evolved into passion and purpose

On our recent Wellness Wednesday, we interviewed Cami Palomo, founder of the Avela Foundation. It is a non-profit organization driven by the intent to support children with burn injuries on their road to recovery. Their new “normal” is a repeatedly hard pill to swallow, physically and psychologically. So, Avela hopes to make this lifelong change brighter by helping the survivors awaken their full potential.

We are deeply inspired by the story that birthed the inception of this NGO. Palomo is originally from a small country called El Salvador, on the Pacific side of Central America. But she lived most of her life in Miami, Florida. In 2012, retired and looking to pursue something meaningful, she came to Cape Town to volunteer at the Red Cross Children’s Hospital. It was here where she witnessed the harsh realities that rest inside a burn ward.

Initially, she was reluctant to assist in this area for fear of being unable to bear the heartbreaking conditions of the victims. Certainly, at this point, Palomo was unaware that this unit held the key to her renewed sense of purpose. She soon found that this three-month volunteer job was only one piece of a greater picture she wanted to paint.

“Somehow, I got the strength. I saw the beauty of those children from within, not their scars. I just observed their resilience and it’s unbelievable,” muses Palomo.

Trekking for a cause

Palomo’s work has her engaged and giving. But, she is also keeping fit and healthy while simultaneously supporting burn survivors. She shared her journey in raising over 12 million (since Avela’s inception in 2015) through climbing adventures. It was a no-brainer to use trekking for a cause because she loves the activity. What’s more, she has built solid and transparent relationships with donors as a result.

A group of 8 trekkers are posing in front of the Sagarmatha National Park in Nepal

Trekkers from the Avela Foundation on a Mt Everest Base Camp trip. Image Source: Avela Foundation Instagram

They raise funds for a specific project with every trip taken. A successful summit of Kilimanjaro amounted to over 1.5 million for a machine that helps kids with scarring. Additionally, they rebuilt the whole Kimberley Hospital in the Northern Cape. This came after hiking to Everest base camp in 2018, where they collected almost R3 million. Clearly, this voyage is a rewarding one. Volunteers will conquer their own limits all the while contributing to a life-changing charity.

On that note, Palomo is doing this particular climb for a third time in a group of seven. She discussed her enthusiasm over the valuable insights shared among the trekkers with each trip. In fact, Remy Kloos (the first South African to summit Mount Everest) is at the helm of this adventure. Certainly, this will be a memory of a lifetime, with lives changing with each tread.

Climbing a mountain to understand the courage of children with burns

We love how her purpose and passion keep her energetic, pushing her outside her comfort zone often. We have to say, this feels poetic. It’s no easy feat going on such a challenging expedition. However, that’s the whole point. Palomo, and the others, climb their own mountain to best honor these children with burns for the mountain they face daily.

“Doing something for a cause makes it more fun and gratifying. We know we are doing it for all the amazing burn survivors. I have no idea what a bad burn feels like or [dealing with] day-to-day life [because of it],” highlights Palomo, “So, taking on this [kind of] challenge feels like the only way we can truly honor them for their courage and strength.”

Social isolation and stigma

Palomo expressed that the parents of the children with burn injuries feel immense guilt and shame. They attempt to protect their hurt child’s self-esteem by keeping them out of public spaces. Understandably, they fear it will set the stage for bullying. This is especially true regarding burns to the face, where anyone can see and make comments.

Kids only tend to realize that something is “wrong” with them when they attend school. People will inquire about their “different appearance”, leaving room for insecurity to fester. Consequently, this often leads them down troubled roads, spurring involvement with drugs and gangs.

Dealing with trauma and embracing scars

Burn scars are a lifelong issue, harming psychosocial well-being. The event in which the burns take place is traumatic enough. Now, survivors need to deal with societal labels after the fact like “misfit”, “different”, or “unworthy”. To counter this, the Avela Foundation provides these kids, and their families, with a new lease on life in an otherwise terrible situation.

A Hispanic woman is sitting down and smiling with a young black girl on her lap

Cami Palomo, founder of The Avela Foundation. Image Source: Avela Foundation Website

“We want to make sure that the kids return to school feeling strong, where they embrace their scars instead of fighting them…because scars never go away. They will always be there,” explains Cami.

Furthermore, Palomo revealed that 80% of burns on survivors aged zero to 5 years come from exposure to hot water. Some cases are related to abuse but it’s mostly accidental. Accordingly, they are working on educating parents about mindfulness when handling boiling water in the company of their kids. Activities like cooking or drinking a hot beverage can lay the groundwork for accidental third-degree burns!

The bottom line

Palomo is helping and serving a community she never even grew up with. Yet, she feels only joy being part of it. Burn survivors know enduring hardship like no other. So, why not climb up an actual mountain to pay homage to them?

Does a personal challenge and giving back in some way appeal to you? Consider joining Palomo during her next trek! Alternatively, you can donate via BackABuddy or the Avela Foundation website.

Cover Image Source: The Avela Foundation Instagram

Article Image of Trekkers Source: The Avela Foundation Instagram

Article Image of Cami Palomo Source: The Avela Foundation Website

Watch the full interview on Instagram.

Caela Bennett

Caela Bennett

Caela Bennett is a wellness content writer and holistic health coach. She hopes to enlighten people through powerful storytelling and offer clarity when navigating the noise within the realm of health. In addition, she guides others in awakening their self-discovery journey and embodying the best version of themselves. Her work is rooted in the philosophy of alchemy: turning metal into gold, i.e., transforming one thing into something better. While she is a maximalist in expressing herself through words, she is a minimalist in lifestyle pursuits.

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