“[The scar] can now be easily covered by hair, but he’s always been very, very self-conscious about not wanting it to be exposed,” said his mother, Tiffany Melashenko. “He didn’t want people asking him about it. We were trying to help him understand his condition and embrace it, but we were struggling.”
That is, until they went to Camp Cosmos.
Hosted by local nonprofit ConnectMed International, Camp Cosmos is a free therapeutic and recreational day camp that brings together children with craniofacial differences and their families. Held this year at Dan McKinney Family YMCA in La Jolla, the camp features inflatables, giant Jenga, lawn games, and traditional carnival activities as well as group therapy for both the children and their parents.
Tiffany Melashenko said that as soon as they arrived to the inaugural camp last year, her son started pointing out other children who looked like him.
“He kept whispering, ‘Mom, she has a scar like me,’ or ‘He has a scar like me,’” Melashenko said. “It was amazing. After camp he continued to talk about it."
In the fall following the camp, Paxton had to have another surgery that required him to shave his head and expose his scar. Instead of hiding it, he went to school with a shaved head and talked about his scar in class. Now inspired by his own story, Paxton also made more than 50 care packages for other kids who were undergoing surgeries of their own at the same hospital.
“It changed completely from hiding it to embracing it and bring proud of it,” his mom said. “It was really amazing.”
That change, according to Melashenko, was all thanks to the community and support he felt at Camp Cosmos.
“He struggles with some gross motor skills, so some of the obstacle courses were difficult for him,” she said. “The kids there jumped in and helped him through it. It made him feel so special because he wasn’t alone."
ConnectMed Executive Director Rita Abbati Albert said the idea for the camp came from the organization’s founder and UCSD Chief of Plastic Surgery Dr. Amanda Gosman. She felt there was a real need to not only treat the physical health of the patients, but their emotional and mental health as well.
As it turns out, parents also need that fun and therapeutic outlet.
“Last year, I was able to listen to part of the parent group discussion, and it was really powerful,” Albert said. “Any surgery on a child is of course traumatic, but the surgeries that children with craniofacial differences go through are a particular subset because most of the time there are multiple surgeries; like several over several years.”
"It’s very traumatic on a lot of levels, and you have to kind of push it aside just to get through everything,” said Melashenko. “A lot of the times, you feel like people just don’t understand what we’ve been through. So being with other parents who have been through something similar, there’s just a peace that comes with it to know that you’re not alone.”
The second annual Camp Cosmos will be held on July 27, from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., at Dan McKinney Family YMCA, 8355 Cliffridge Ave. To donate to ConnectMed or register for the camp, visit connectmed.org.