AURORA, Colo. — A candle caused the fire that destroyed their house, but the three made it out alive. Diana Mendez and her mother were treated for severe smoke inhalation while 8-year-old Juan Alvarado suffered several burns.
More than a year later, he's still recovering from the third-degree burns on his chest and hand that required skin grafts.
Both Mendez and Alvarado told their story through a series of words, photographs and artwork currently on display at Children's Hospital Colorado. The stories of eight other burn victims, including five from Cape Town, South Africa, are also displayed on the walls to form a mini exhibit that aims to show that burn stories transcend geographical boundaries.
Art Therapist Katherine Reed put the project together with the help of five burn victims at Children's Hospital Colorado and five burn victims at a trauma therapy center in Cape Town called LionHearted Kids.
Mendez said she was interested in being a part of the project because it involved burn victims from South Africa. She said the project made her realize that her family was not alone in experiencing the trauma of a fire.
"No matter how far apart we are, a lot of us go through the same story," she said.
Reed, who is also the program manager of the Ponzio Creative Art Therapy program at Children's, developed the idea for the project after being approached in September 2011 by the woman who founded LionHearted Kids. "She was interested in emulating a creative arts therapy program in Cape Town and I got really excited about the chance to be a part of that development," she said.
She received a $2,200 grant to help fund her endeavor, which mostly covered printing expenses for the exhibit. Reed fronted the rest of the costs for the trip out of her own pocket, and she traveled to Cape Town in April. "It was so worth it because it was such an incredible experience," she said.
Reed consciously paired each Colorado burn victim with a South African burn victim in the exhibit. Each vignette is told in a variety of ways, first through Reed's perspective, then through photographs, summaries and art made by the burn victims themselves.
Mendez's "match" is a 10-year-old girl named Amahle, who immersed herself into a bath of boiling hot water earlier this year. She couldn't feel the temperature because of an accident that had paralyzed her from the waist down at 3 years old.
"When I first met her she was kind of depressed," Reed said. Then, she watched a video that Mendez had made for her, in which Mendez described her own experiences with fire. "It lit her up just to know there was a girl who wanted to meet her from America and wanted to tell her story," Reed said. Reed helped Amahle draw a whimsical apple tree and make a video for Mendez.
Alvarado was matched with a boy named Kaden, a 12-year-old who previously held the record of fastest runner in his grade. He suffered severe burns on his head when a kettle of hot water fell on him. Kaden, described by Reed as smart and courageous, saw a photograph of a beaded necklace that Alvarado had made for his mother, and immediately wanted to do the same for his own family. "Kaden is a lot like Juan," Reed said. "When they speak, you're just kind of blown away by how much they understand about this world."
Reed also helped Kaden write and illustrate a 10-page book titled, "The Story of the Brave Boy." In his own words, Kaden recounts his story: "When I was burned, I never knew that I would recover. My mommy and my daddy told me that I went through a lot of pain, but I still made it," he wrote. "Now, I feel much better." His conclusion is both a warning and an inspiration.
"Watch out and be careful, but if you have an accident too, you will recover," he wrote.
Mendez scanned the wall of stories Nov. 8 at Children's Hospital Colorado as her little brother, meek and cloying, clung to her waist in a tight embrace.
She recalled the episode that strengthened their bond.
"We were always close, but I think this made us a lot, lot closer," she said. "Now we realize all we have is each other, and life's too short."
There's a quote, written by Mendez in her portion of the exhibit, that captures the essence of Reed's project. It proves that there are powerful connections among survivors of fires, no matter where they reside, no matter the degree to which they are hurt. It reads: "My brother Juan was burned on the outside; I was burned on the inside."