Maren Jacobson has faced her share of obstacles. As a burn survivor she has encountered challenges few people could comprehend. But she hasn’t just overcome obstacles: she has leveraged them for the greater good.
A burn survivor and a talented photographer, she has meshed her life experience with her artistic passion to spearhead the creation of “Just Like You” a photo essay book that tells the stories of 11 burn survivors through imagery and the written word. All proceeds will benefit the Los Angeles Children’s Burn Foundation (CBF). Books are available at www.childburn.org and at store.bookbaby.com.
The genesis of the book started, naturally, with Jacobson’s own story.
At the age of two, she was helping her dad make mac and cheese when she accidentally tipped over a pot of boiling water, resulting in burns to 40 percent of her body. What followed were three years of painful treatments, surgeries, complications, and a life-threatening infection. And because she was burned on visible parts of her body - head, face, hands, arms, and legs - the bullying also started early.
“My first bullying experience was in the first grade. The other kids saw my arms and scars and started yelling ‘Lizard! Snake!’ Of course, that bothered me, and I started feeling nervous and consequently would always wear long sleeves and pants,” she shared.
The scars lessened as she grew older, and her understanding that everyone deals with some type of insecurity helped her move forward. But it still bothered her that burn survivors were stigmatized,
“Growing up I never saw burn survivors accurately represented (in media). I thought I was the only burn survivor in the world, and I felt separate,” she said.
But that changed in elementary school when her Girl Scout troop went to camp. She met and was inspired by a counselor with burn scars along her arm and up to her shoulders, similar to her own scars. When she saw her, Jacobson burst out, “I look just like you!”
Over the years she met more burn survivors through the CBF Teen Group, a place where she felt a sense of family and belonging. But she continued to question why the burn community’s accomplishments, lives and talents were not publicly celebrated.
She also developed an avid interest in photography, and found the creative outlet was also an emotional balm. As a junior at Oaks Christian in Westlake Village, she enrolled in the Visual Storytelling class. Each year the class takes on a real-world project to create positive change. She proposed the class create a photo/essay book about burn survivors.
“It just hit me that this would be a really good thing to let burn survivors share their real and personal stories with the greater community,” she said.
Work on the book began in 2020, but then the pandemic hit, and schools went to remote learning. The project stalled and seemed like it would not get done. But when Jacobson returned for her senior year, along with her classmates they decided collectively to finish it. A majority of the work was done by Charlotte White who jumped in to write, and Ty Keough on the layout..
Sony Pictures let the class use a studio to take portraits of the book subjects, and the Los Angeles Kings lent the use of their practice ice rink for another shoot.
“My greatest satisfaction is the way everyone came together and did their part. Yes, I proposed the idea, but everyone was on board and on the same page. None of this would have been possible if we had not all pull together and overcome every obstacle,” she said.
Tanya Sorkin, chief program officer at the CBF, has known Jacobsen since she was 13, and has always known her to be an exceptional person.
“I’ve known Maren since she started in our teen group. She’s a thoughtful leader and amazing person who doesn't let her burns define her. She is making a significant contribution here. I am so proud of her and her classmates for taking on this huge project,” she said.
Jacobson will leave for college in Boulder, Colorado in the fall to major in marketing and advertising with an eye toward opening her own public relations firm one day. She will continue to use her photography and experiences to advocate for burn survivors.
“To be honest, I still get a little insecure meeting new people and going to college makes me a little nervous. People can have a weird reaction (to my burns) and that never really goes away,” she shared. “But I don’t know myself any other way. I was burned at such a young age so I have no idea who I would be without my scars. I would not be the same person. Everyone’s experiences shape them, including burn survivors who, at the end of the day, are just like you. And their stories deserve to be heard.”