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Sarie Magazine (March 2017) Featured Article

Heads turn when Cami Palomo walks into a room. This smouldering native of El Salvador, who calls Cape Town home these days, could easily be mistaken for an international model. Her beautiful exterior shelters a heart that beats warmly for South Africa and an iron will to help children with serious burns. Cami is busy moving mountains for people who have experienced the trauma of fire-related burns and who need not only healing of their physical wounds, but also their emotional wounds. Lizma van Zyl sat down to speak to this driven woman who’s intent on making a difference.

We’re sitting in a busy coffee shop in Kloof Street, but Cami scarcely touches her beetroot and carrot juice. Her hands play a lively part in the conversation and her Spanish accent is evident, while she enthusiastically tells me about her newly established Avela Foundation, a non-profit organisation that aims to help children with burn injuries on their road to physical and emotional recovery. Cami’s shadow, Lucy the rescue Labrador, lies contentedly at her mother’s feet.

Cami first visited South Africa in 2011 with her children, Katie and Teddy, and it was love at first sight. “I particularly lost my heart to Cape Town because there is a joy and positive energy that is almost tangible.” Cami explains that she had sold her Italian watch export company in 2005 after which she reported for volunteer work in some of the world’s poorest countries. Tanzania was the first stop, where she helped with HIV/Aids awareness campaigns and education in rural areas. Then she packed her bags to help build houses for the disadvantaged people in Nepal’s rural areas. “I’ve just got divorced after a marriage of twenty years, my children were old enough to stand on their own two feet, and I felt that now it was my time, but that it was also time to make a difference somewhere, in someone’s life.”’

In 2012, Cami locked the doors of her apartment in Miami, Florida, and opened the large glass doors of a cottage on Bakoven’s beach. (She and her family were forced to flee El Salvador in 1979 due to the civil war, after which Miami became home.) This Central American swallow wasn’t planning to spend her days lazing on the beach, though … Cami was here with a goal and within a week after her arrival, she reported for voluntary service at the Red Cross Children’s War Memorial Hospital. “At that stage I hadn’t considered the burns unit at all; I am too emotional about children and didn’t think I could handle that much suffering.” (The specialised C2 Unit is the only paediatric unit of its kind in Africa, and annually treats about 3500 children with serious burn injuries. Eighty five percent of the patients are younger than six and eighty nine percent of them come from disadvantaged homes.)

“As fate would have it, the head of the unit asked me to help exactly there.” Cami says she went to sit in the hospital’s chapel to ask for guidance. “In the silence, I found my answer and that is how my journey with the burn injury patients in the hospital began. Little did I know that it was also the start of what has now, for me, become a calling.”
It is in one of those wards that Cami met little Avela – a seven-month old baby girl form a Cape Town township who had lost her mother in a shack fire. Avela’s own life was hanging on a thread and Cami became a regular visitor at her bedside.

“That brave little girl has a very special place in my heart. She was so bewildered and in so much pain as she lay in that hospital bed, with no one coming to visit her.” Five years later Cami still becomes emotional when she talks about the child who changed her life and who was the inspiration behind the establishment of the Avela Foundation.

For three and a half years, Cami visited the little burns patients five times a week. She would read to them, colour in pictures, dance with them or just sit and talk and hold their hands. She also comforted the worried mothers who kept vigil at their children’s bedsides.

The fifty-six-year-old brunette greatly admires the work done by the hospital, which is also why she has thrown her weight behind a fundraising project for a laser machine to treat burn scars. It is partly thanks to Cami and the collaboration with the Smile Foundation that the highly advanced technological equipment, worth more than two million Rands, is now being used with great success at the hospital. The laser treatment helps restore elasticity, which improves the appearance of scars.

The Avela Foundation, which officially came into being last year, aims to raise funds for advanced equipment for the treatment of burn injuries as well as for counselling services for patients and their families. “The emotional trauma of survivors of burn injuries is often far worse than the physical. The scars go much further than skin deep; they lose their self-confidence because they are ashamed of their appearance and it can have an impact on their relationships for the rest of their lives. So many people with burn scars live a lonely life because they hide from the world or are bullied.”

Cami, who is in the process of applying for permanent residency in South African, says her biggest challenge is “credibility”. I am a foreigner and don’t know that many people in South Africa, so it is quite difficult for me to go knocking on doors for funds for the foundation. People have never heard of me and I have to work so much harder to achieve results.” She laughs and adds that initially her accent is also confusing to potential donors. Cami says she is immensely grateful to the small group of friends and acquaintances who took the leap of faith to help her establish the foundation.

But Cami’s attempts to make a difference doesn’t stop there. Together with Marc Lubner, the founder of the Smile Foundation who supports Cami’s labour of love, she plans to establish the Avela Smile Foster Home and the Avela Smile Rehabilitation Centre in Cape Town within the next year. The home for burn injury survivors (Cami doesn’t like the term “burn injury victims”) will initially house six children, while the centre will serve as bridging facility for children who have just been discharged from hospital. “Children can be very cruel and those with scars or disabilities often get stared at and insulted. The centre will help the children to regain their humanity after their discharge. We will provide them with the life skills and techniques that will help them to fit into society again. It is essential to rebuild their self-confidence so that they can reintegrate more easily.”

When she is not busy raising funds and meeting people with burn wounds, Cami attends lectures and conferences to learn more about the physical and emotional needs of people with serious burns. She is also getting fit, because this intrepid hiker plans to take on Mount Everest’s base camp in a few months to raise money for and awareness about the battle burn survivors all too often wage. Cami will be accompanied by Australian Turia Pitt, who campaigns all over the world to help people with burn injuries. (Turia almost died in a fire herself in 2011. This mining engineer, turned motivational speaker and author, suffered burn wounds to 65% of her body when she was caught in a bush fire during an ultra-marathon in Western Australia.)

Our two hours together have flown by; Cami now has an appointment with one of the people in whose lives she has already made a massive difference. Her eyes sparkle when she talks about the forty-three year-old William Baartman – a black man with serious scars dating back to a fire during the apartheid years. His parent’s house was the target of a petrol bomb attack because his father, an Afrikaans teacher, was considered a traitor. Cami almost pleads that we mention William in the article. “I met him through St Joseph’s Home – a shy man who used to be extremely timid around people because of his scars.” Cami took William under her wing and started attending counselling sessions with him. Their friendship has blossomed and is now one of the most precious things in her life. Thanks to Cami’s support and encouragement, William is now able to keep his head up and to look the world right in the eyes, scars and all. “I don’t do volunteer work at the hospital anymore because I have to focus on the Avela Foundation but I have great peace of mind, since William is now permanently on duty at the burns unit. William gives the children hope – they look at him and see someone who has survived a similar experience and who is now leading a happy and productive life.”

“There is one very important message I would like to impart, if I may,” she says while getting up to leave. “More than one point six million people in South Africa suffer burns each year, but there is still a huge lack of support. It is essential that people become involved and reach out to those who survive this trauma.”

This message also links up to the motto of her foundation: #togethertogive

It is time to say goodbye. As she walks away with the loyal Lucy by her side, I think: May her application for permanent residency be successful …
We need “Cami’s” in South Africa…

* Footnote: Avela has recovered well and now lives with family in the Western Cape.

Click here to view the original SARIE magazine article (March 2017)