Atarah Dickinson was only five years old when a house fire burned 95 percent of her body with third degree burns.
She was asleep on a top bunk bed when a candle lit by playing children fell over and ignited the carpet. The bedroom was ablaze before she woke up and jumped down, right into flames. Her mother risked her own life to rescue her.
Atarah spent six months in the hospital. Doctors had to create substitute skin for her because almost all of own skin was damaged. Her skin is a collage of brown, her natural color, and white, the cultured skin.
Now 21, Atarah is graduating from Medaille College in upstate New York with a bachelor’s degree in psychology. She spent the past semester interning at an independent living agency, working mainly in the peer mental counseling quarter helping adults with physical or mental disabilities live on their own.
She did a range of things for clients, helping them find apartments, helping children get services, even help parents fight for custody of their children. She found her calling.
“I really, really loved doing that. It gave me genuine joy to help someone in need,” said Atarah, who lives with her parents and two younger brothers in Buffalo, NY.
Atarah credits her parents with giving her confidence and the skills necessary to navigate her way to success by not treating her differently than her siblings after her injury.
“My father made it his business to make sure I didn’t have self-esteem issues. My mother and my sister also played a big part in my resilience,” she said.
The Angel Faces retreat uncovered deeply buried feelings about her injury and her disfigurement. She hadn’t really realized how much anger she was carrying around with her.
“Up until that, I had never thought about the pain beyond the surface,” she said. “I thought I was okay but then I realized, ‘Wow, I really have a lot of issues.’ ”
She processed her grief and loss issues along with others at the retreat. She remains close friends with one of the girls she met there.
Atarah says her experience with trauma helps her in her work. If a client is struggling, she might say “I have been through this and that and I got through it. You can come out of this.” “Sometimes I even go into detail to let them know that everyone has problems and there’s no such thing as a life that’s better than yours,” she said.
Asked what advice she would tell an adolescent healing from a trauma, she said, “The best advice I could give anybody would be to take it one day at a time. Don’t try to rush it. Be patient. I spent so much of my teenage years trying to convince myself I was fine and I wasn’t.”