Veteran D.C. firefighter and Cafritz Awards winner founded the Burn Foundation to help survivors get treatment and support.
By Ruth Steinhardt
Jason Woods pulls 24-hour shifts, three days and nights a week, as a Washington, D.C., firefighter. But he says not all of his most important colleagues are at the firehouse. Some are the doctors and nurses at the Burn Center at MedStar Washington Hospital Center.
“They’re the ones who take care of us when we have a bad day,” Mr. Woods said. “And the people we risk our lives to save sometimes end up in the burn unit too. So it’s not worth that risk we put into it if the person isn’t going to have a high quality of life after.”
To that end, Mr. Woods and some of his firehouse colleagues founded the DC Firefighters Burn Foundation in 2004 with modest goals: to raise money annually for the Burn Center, to run a summer camp for kids with burn injuries and to establish a support system for injured firefighters.
The Burn Foundation has now grown into a sweeping and ambitious slate of programs. Mr. Woods and his colleagues developed an injury prevention training for firefighters that has reduced burn injuries at the D.C. Fire Department by 25 percent. They sponsor support groups, outdoor programs and conference attendance for burn victims. And they have helped establish a new pediatric burn ward at Children’s National Medical Center.
Mr. Woods’ work with the foundation won him a $7,500 prize in 2015 from the Cafritz Awards Program for D.C. government employees, which annually recognizes and rewards outstanding performance and exemplary service by public employees. Since 2000, the Morris and Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation has hosted the annual program in partnership with the George Washington University’s Center for Excellence in Public Leadership at the College of Professional Studies. As part of that close relationship, Mr. Woods and the Burn Foundation have on several occasions partnered for fundraisers with Greek organizations at GW.
Winners and finalists are recognized at the annual Cafritz Awards Gala, which is held at the Marvin Center in early summer and brings together senior leadership from GW, D.C. government and the Cafritz Foundation.
“Burn centers are highly regionalized—there are only about 120 in the country,” Mr. Woods said. And before the burn center at Children’s was established, kids from the D.C. area with severe burns over much of their body had to be flown to the Pediatric Burn Care Center at Massachusetts General Hospital.
“They’re an amazing organization and what they do is phenomenal, but healing from pediatric burn injuries is a lifelong process,” Mr. Woods said. Many children could receive free care, but their families had either to send them for treatment alone or travel themselves, at high cost.
“That puts a huge strain on the families,” Mr. Woods said. “So we’ve advocated for a burn center here in D.C. for years.”
And the foundation still adheres to its original goals. They have raised more than $1 million for state-of-the-art equipment at the Burn Center. Every summer, they fly a group of burn survivors from ages 8 to 18 to Connecticut for an all-expenses-paid camp experience. And when a D.C. firefighter is burned, a representative from the Burn Foundation is always waiting at the hospital to counsel them and their family.
Mr. Woods also serves on the board of the American Burn Association—only the second firefighter to do so in its 50-year history. For him, some of the Burn Foundation’s most important work is invisible. At the foundation’s local outdoor program, for instance, survivors hike, ski, climb rocks and test their physical limits.
“With burns, you get a lot of psychological injuries as well,” he said. “People realize they’re never going to look the same again. So some of it is giving people confidence, getting them out of the house, showing them what they can achieve.”
Mr. Woods also said that burn injuries are likely to come from the poorest areas of Washington, D.C., where the foundation’s ability to offer low- or no-cost support to survivors can make an enormous difference.
The Burn Foundation’s support can also make a difference to hospitals. Because burn care is so regionalized, there is no competition for advanced burn units and no incentive for hospital administrators to put money into them, Mr. Woods said.
“That’s why firefighters get involved—because these are the people who pick us up and put us back together,” he said.