Health Care and Nonprofits

Phoenix Society ranks as ‘the gold standard’ of peer support groups

Grand Rapids-based international organization offers healing, recovery programs for burn victims.

June 1, 2018
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Andy Hemker and his son, Wyatt, connected with the Phoenix Society after they were burned in an accident. Courtesy Bronson Healthcare

Andy Hemker was driving a skid loader three years ago with his 4-year-old son, Wyatt Hemker, when they became victims of an accident.

As they were driving, the gas tank became over pressurized.

That blew the gas valve off the top of the tank and soaked them with gasoline.

Once gasoline hit the muffler, it ignited into a “big ball of fire.”

Andy Hemker got his son and himself off the vehicle, but not before the two sustained burns across their bodies. Andy Hemker’s right side and back were burned, and his son’s right side was burned.

He called 911. Wyatt Hemker was taken by ambulance to a hospital, and Andy Hemker was airlifted.

Andy Hemker was in a coma for one week and the hospital for three weeks. His son was in a coma for two weeks and in the hospital for four-and-a-half weeks.

Andy Hemker said knowing his son was badly injured was the hardest part. If it were him alone, he said it would have much easier to get through.

Part of what has helped them along their road to recovery, he said, is the Phoenix Society, a 40-year-old international organization based in Grand Rapids that works to unite the voices of the burn community and “advance lifelong healing, optimal recovery and burn prevention.”

The organization has educational programs, peer-to-peer support, an online community, in-person events and more.

Perhaps one of the biggest pieces of the organization is the Phoenix SOAR (Survivors Offering Assistance in Recovery) program, which is used in more than 70 of the 120 burn centers across North America.

SOAR is a program that offers hospital-based peer support to burn survivors.

“It’s the gold standard, I think, of hospital-based peer support programs,” said Amy Acton, Phoenix Society executive director. “It’s one of the most widely used that we know of.”

Andy Hemker has benefitted from the program, and since his accident, he brought an extension of the program to the burn center in Kalamazoo where he received treatment.

One of the biggest pieces is the annual Phoenix World Burn Congress, which brings together 1,000 members of the burn community from across the world.

That’s where Andy Hemker said he has met several other burn victims who have become close friends and have helped him through his recovery.

Acton has been working with the organization for 20 years, but prior to that, when she was a nurse manager at the local burn center, she would bring patients to the annual event.

“We saw the value of how that really helped them get back to life,” Acton said.

The organization also offers online peer support chat and, since 2013, has offered education grants to more than 80 burn survivor students to further postsecondary education.

“When people have treatment at a burn center, quite often they go home to where there are no burn experts, so a lot of what we do is virtual,” Acton said.

“Our mission really is about building a community for transformative healing, so to do that, how do we create a virtual experience to help people understand that they’re not alone in this?”

Another big focus of the organization is advocacy and prevention, she said. That includes adding voice to codes and standards, as well as in some products, such as fire-safe cigarettes.

The organization of 14 members historically has operated rather quietly in Wyoming. But now, Acton said it is time for the organization to “relaunch” in Grand Rapids and become a bigger part of the community.

Phoenix Society recently finished a $6-million capital campaign to fund future projects. Some of that money is going toward a move to 525 Ottawa Ave. NW in August after renovations are complete, just in time to host this year’s burn conference.

The new space will be about 5,000 square feet, double what the organization has now.

“We’re really excited about this space because we’re creating it to really fulfill our vision of what the next 40 years at Phoenix Society will be,” she said.

She would like to connect with additional organizations and nonprofits in the area.

Phoenix Society is connected with several partners now, including Viking Group, a fire protection service, which is a sponsor of the annual event.

Andy Hemker said he is not sure how his or his son’s healing experiences would have gone without the Phoenix Society.

While it was a tragic accident the two experienced, he said a lot of good has come from it — not just between other victims he has met through the organization, but also in the relationship between him and his son.

“I think my son and I now have a bond that no one can break,” he said.

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