August 01, 1988 12:00 PM

“… I know you can dance, even though you got burned. You don’t need a nose or 2 ears or hands or eyelids to dance!…”—Brigette Wilmetti, age 8, Rock Springs, Wyo.

In Rock Springs, life—like the landscape—can sometimes look a little bleak. The old mining town (pop. 22,000) straddles an interstate, and there is little more than a vista of desert—that and the rock formations that sprout tough clumps of sagebrush. Children here know the meaning of hardship.

When local teacher Linda Baldwin read PEOPLE’s story (March 21, 1988) on 7-year-old burn victim Sage Volkman, she decided to take it to the grade schoolers enrolled in Rock Springs’ Quest-Options program for gifted children. Her kids, ages 7 to 12, were “deeply moved,” says Baldwin. “They really did feel for Sage. They were so caught up by the story that a lot of big tears came down. These are kids who are sometimes teased because they’re smart, and they’re used to a lot of put-downs. They also know something about pain and suffering—and about how you have to go on.”

So, of course, does Sage, who suffered devastating burns when her family’s camper caught fire in October 1986. Last month she left her New Mexico home for Galveston, where she checked into the Shriners Burns Institute for the latest in a projected 11-year series of operations. Surgeons reconstructed her lower lip and chin and replaced the skin on her neck, allowing her to turn her head again freely for the first time since the accident. “I got a neck release, a chin and a lip,” she said happily after surgery. “I’ve been on my back the whole time, and I’m ready to come home.”

When she did go home to Placitas, near Albuquerque, she found the latest batch of the more than 3,000 letters she has received from well-wishers, including one from President Reagan. Soon to be added is the sizable stack of crayon drawings and penciled letters from the kids of Rock Springs. It was their own decision, says Baldwin. “Our kids thought it would help if we could become friends with Sage.”

Some of their letters are chatty. “At about 1:30 this morning, our horse had a baby,” writes third-grader John Lusch. Elizabeth Eyring wants Sage to know that “we have antelope up here…. In my family I have 1 sister and 3 brothers and a mother and a father. We’re planning to stay together all our lives. I hope yours will too.” Nine-year-old Dana Carter reports that the students recently studied about whales: “Did you know that the blue whale has a heart as big as a little car?”

Other letters come from children who obviously empathize with Sage. “I know how you feel about surgery,” writes fourth-grader Matthew Krugman, “because I have had it on my heart and on my thigh…just remember you’ll have a friend up north.” Says 9-year-old Michael Harris: “I’ve had an operation on my neck…I had a growth and I almost died. My point is that I know you can do it.” Jerry Jeff Tuft “went through an operation when I was born. My thumbs were stuck together and I had to have them apart. I think you are very brave…Roses are red. Violets are blue. You said you could. You did! You made it through!”

Taylor Rossetti, born without lower legs, minimizes his handicap compared with Sage’s: “The only problem I had to overcome is having fake legs. I like to play golf, football, baseball and soccer. It’s hard to keep trying, I know.”

Nearly all of the children offer words of encouragement to Sage in her ongoing recovery. “Out here in Wyoming we have a plant called sage,” writes Jeremy Wiig. “Sage is one of the most plentiful plants because it stands up during winter and dust storms. You are pretty much like sage in the way that you stand up against things…”

According to Sage’s father, Michael Volkman, “We read all the letters, and it all helps to bring Sage’s spirits up—to know that people are thinking of her.”

And someday, when she recalls her ordeal, she will also remember that people, like the blue whale, sometimes have hearts as big as little cars.

—By Susan Schindehette, with Julie Klein in Albuquerque

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