Memories of summer camp last a lifetime. Just ask Alabama native Tess Burford who, despite being born as a congenital transhumeral amputee, never allowed that fact to get in the way of her love for the outdoors, physical fitness, and the pure joys of a camp experience in the mountains of North Carolina.
Tess was so passionate about camp that she graduated from being a camper to becoming a counselor. Today, she is an active board member of the very same Adventure Amputee Camp (AAC) she first attended as a 10-year old.
Along with Karen Hall (President and Camp Director) and a host of incredible volunteers, Tess is a true adaptive warrior! She spends countless hours overseeing the marketing and messaging of this amazing nonprofit organization that holds its one-week summer camp sessions in the picturesque mountain region of Bryson City, North Carolina.
Located at the Nantahala Outdoor Center, the camp offers extraordinary adventures to 35 lucky kids who literally pay nothing to attend save for a $25 registration fee. A winter camp takes place at the Wintergreen Ski Resort in Wintergreen, Virginia.
“Nantahala graciously sets aside dates and about 8-10 cabins for the 5 days we are there each summer,” says Tess. “AAC pays for that privilege through the many wonderful donations we receive.”
The camp must be doing something right, since it’s been an ongoing passion project for 20+ years. Originally started in 1995 as the Amputees Coming Together Kids Camp by Missy Wolf-Burke and her husband, Bob Burke, the founders reorganized in 2006 and became AAC.
Activities during the camp are designed to provide kids with amputations the opportunity to stretch their reality and imagination of what is possible to achieve. Activities range from the sedentary and entertaining to the more challenging, both physically and mentally. Kids partake in adaptive basketball, swimming, yoga, rope and zip line, tennis and more. They even get to experience a first-day, white water river rafting adventure.
There are normally 15 counselors at the summer camp, so a ratio of about 2:1 with the 35 campers. The kids range in age from 8-17, with a nice mix so that no one age group feels isolated. The AAC winter camp, a relatively new addition, attracts between 6-8 kids to a location in Wintergreen, Virginia.
“AAC has been a big part of my life ever since I was a kid,” says Tess. “Being able to take risks and step outside my comfort zone as a camper really helped my confidence a lot as I was growing up.”
Tess has fond memories of accomplishments she once thought never possible. They include her conquering the ropes course, a 40-foot high challenge that was made easier by hearing her fellow campers cheering her from below.
Tess credits her parents with an upbringing that felt very normal and gave her the confidence she needed as she became a teenager. She almost never wore a prosthetic for her arm while growing up.
“By high school, my arm was starting to hurt more and since I loved to run, I needed some sort of prosthetic,” says Tess. She sought out the help of Jim Hughes, an Atlanta native and recognized prosthetist who created a passive running arm that did the trick.
“Jim has been a part of my life since first fitting me with a prosthetic when I was 4 months old,” says Tess. “He told me about AAC and really inspired me along the way.”
Tess received a Bachelor of Science degree from Auburn University in Rehabilitation Services and Disability Studies in 2012. She completed her Master’s in Prosthetics and Orthotics at Northwestern University three years later. She then had the opportunity to volunteer at Crimal, a clinic in Queretaro, Mexico, completing prosthetic mission work.
A Certified Prosthetist, Tess is currently living in Atlanta where she is completing her Orthotics residency with Alliance Prosthetics and Orthotics. She credits AAC with giving her the confidence to achieve her dreams.
“Without a doubt this camp changed my life,” says Tess. “I can easily relate to other kids who also know what it’s like living each day with a limb difference.”
Those kids today go through a similar transformation while attending AAC. When they arrive at camp, says Tess, they are shy and reticent about their limb difference. “I’ve witnessed campers accomplishing an obstacle that they never considered tackling before. By the end of camp their self-esteem and confidence are at an all-time high and they’re more willing to take on something else!”
The beauty of AAC is that a few dozen boys and girls with physical challenges get the opportunity to spread their wings and enjoy an exciting, enlightening outdoor camping experience. From food to cabin accommodations, activities and supervision, everything is taken care of at AAC. Kids just need to show up with a smile on their face and determination in their hearts.
As Karen Hall, who first came to AAC as a counselor 10 years ago and now oversees the camp, points out: : “Our goal is always teaching the kids that, hey, you can do everything that you want to do. You can do things you never thought about doing. Just give yourself a chance.”