“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” So opens Dickens’ classic Tale of Two Cities. This is also story of twos: two men, two very different lives. Of trial and redemption. Of humility and hope. And most of all, of the rewards, and joys, of giving.
Michael Mathis is the founder of the Burned Children Recovery Foundation (BCRF), an organization that provides a wide range of services to severely burned children and their families. Michael Mulder is a real estate developer and musician, who spent most of his 20s touring North America as half of Salmond & Mulder, an acoustic duo. Describing himself as “where blues meets rock, in the singer-songwriter tradition,” he does not shy away from his own life experience in his lyrics. His new band, Memphis Rain, is getting ready to release their new album, Little Bit Closer (working title), which Mulder says is the culmination of 13 years of songwriting.
The two Mikes met at a dinner event. “I was sitting next to Michael just long enough to hear his incredible story,” Mulder says, “I was profoundly affected. I had never met a burn survivor before, let alone one so eloquent and impassioned to help children.”
A compelling story indeed: Mathis was severely burned as a child. His burns were so severe that hospital staff removed all mirrors and reflective objects so that he could not see himself. About a month later, a nurse made what in most cases would be a minor mistake: she brought Michael’s lunch on a chrome tray instead of a white plastic one.
“When I picked up the tray and saw myself, it was a very powerful moment,” says Mathis, visibly moved to this day. I thought, “Oh my god. I’m a monster. Who’s going to love me?”
A whole lot of people, it turns out. But in the interim, Mathis’s recovery included 64 surgeries. “It was a very difficult time. Flying back and forth by myself, looking like I did. But it taught me some lessons and it gave me some tools. It gave me a kind of strength.”
When Mathis grew up, there was nothing he wanted more than to share those tools and strengths. “There’s not a lot of children who were burned worse than me, and I thought, if I can tell them my story, share my experience, maybe I can help them get out of their house and living full lives.” Thus was the seed planted for what would become the BCRF, and the reason for the kids to have a camp experience with others who share their world: kids who see them for who they are, not the scars their burns left them with.
When Mulder heard Michael’s story, he was profoundly moved. So moved that when he attended a Rotary event as a guest, he passed out materials he’d gotten from Michael about the camp, not realizing that this was not according to meeting protocol. But something happened that day too: Rotary members were so taken with the story, they asked him if he would come back and speak to the whole group about the organization. “I said yes,” laughs Mulder, “But when I called Michael and told him, he said, ‘No, you’re not! That’s my story.’”
When Mathis shared that story at a subsequent Rotary meeting, the response was also memorable. With tears streaming down his face, one member said, “I never knew, I never really understood what my sister went through, until just now.”
Thus was born another relationship, and at last May’s Rotary auction, they raised 83 thousand dollars in 10 minutes, an astounding outcome that left all participants shocked and thrilled. Since it costs $1500-$2,000 for each child to attend the camp, this meant more than 40 kids would have this life-changing experience.
But it didn’t stop there. “I didn’t know what to do, or how to help further,” says Mulder. “I told him, ‘All I know, all I can offer at this point, is I have a rock band.’ Neither of them knew initially what to do with that, but eventually they realized that there was a way: everywhere the band goes, they ask for permission to bring BCRF with them.
“Memphis Rain has been touring and playing concerts throughout Whatcom and Skagit counties, and when we distribute posters, we include information about BCRF. We talk about them from the stage. So we’ve been ‘singing the song’ with Michael whenever we perform.”
Michael adds, “This has been a terrific partnership between us and the band. They are more than just another rock and roll band – their lyrics – there’s meaning and purpose behind every song.”
One song that resonates in particular on the upcoming album is titled Shame. “We all have shame,” says Mulder. “We all wear scars, it’s just that Michael happens to havehis on his face. Mine are no less deep, they are just inside.”
Those visible scars are sure hard to wear in public, though. “Humility is a hard thing to swallow on a daily basis,” says Mathis. “This is why it’s so important for these kids to be out there. I tell them all: being out in public, you affect people’s lives. Behind closed doors, you won’t. Find your mission in life to change other people’s lives by being in theirs.”
Which is what the Mikes are telling everyone they can, what the kids are hearing at BCRF camp, and what the kids are teaching the rest of us: look beyond the surface, love yourself and others, and when you give, you get so much more than you give.“We have really benefitted from the band, but it’s even more than that,” says Mathis.
“These kids change your lives; they really do. It’s a compelling fact when you hear that there are 280,000 burned children in America, and you wonder why you don’t see them. This is a movement to let these kids come out and affect people’s lives.”When asked why he does this, Mulder responds, “The surprise in all this? I don’t think the kids benefit from this as much as Ido. When we say come on out, meet the BCRF and these kids, they need you, what we’re really saying is you need them. In ways you don’t even know yet. When a little kid comes up and hugs you, and thanks you, well, I ask you – who’s getting the benefit? I’ve had my soul changed.”
Two Mikes, two lives: giving each other the gift of friendship and affecting the lives of severely burned children, one concert and one camp scholarship at a time. A tale of two lives well lived.
You can help BCRF by visiting their website at: www.burnedchildrenrecovery.org
You can also participate in Rite Aid’s Kid Cents program: www.kidcents.riteaid.com and choose Burned Children Recovery Foundation as your beneficiary.