By Maureen Balleza, UTMB

When Sandy Montelongo emcees the Stop, Drop & Roll race to benefit the patients and families of the Blocker Burn Unit at the University of Texas Medical Branch, she knows just what this means for them. She is a burn survivor herself.

In a tragic case of abuse, at age 5 she was placed in a tub of scalding water, suffering third-degree burns to her calves, thighs and buttocks. She was brought to Galveston for treatment, and it holds a very special place in her heart.

“It always brings back the most wonderful memories because the staff was so amazing,” she said. “I felt like it was a happy place, even though I was going through so much pain.”

Montelongo survived and went on to earn a communications degree at the University of Texas at Austin, and then a master’s degree, while marketing various programs for the NBA, NFL and MTV around the country.

Along the way, she began to do volunteer work with burn survivors in different programs, such as summer camps for kids. “Because of my experience, and I’m sure it happens to a lot of burn survivors, about 15 years ago I felt this urgent need to give back,” said Montelongo.

She attended her first World Burn Congress while living in New York City and learned it would be in Galveston the next year, 2010.

“I immediately went home and booked my trip,” she said. “I wanted to visit the place where I was saved — one I hadn’t seen since I was 13.”

The annual World Burn Congress is a place for survivors and families to get together and share their challenges and successes. “It’s our time to feel normal,” said Montelongo. “Your scars are invisible.”

As home to the Truman G. Blocker Burn Unit at UTMB, Galveston was a logical choice for the WBC. The unit was the first to be fully accredited in the United States, and is recognized globally for research and discoveries leading to improved outcomes. During the WBC, members of the BBU underwent training for the Survivors Offering Assistance in Recovery, or SOAR, program. Montelongo went through training last year and is now certified as a SOAR peer supporter. All proceeds from the race benefit the Blocker Burn Champions, dedicated to helping burn survivors and their families, who often have tremendous needs for assistance and resources.

Montelongo is delighted to volunteer, but last May realized she needed to do more than that. She now lives in San Antonio and recently completed the necessary prerequisites to enter a master’s program in occupational therapy with the goal of bringing all of her life’s experience to bear in helping burn survivors and their families.

“Because I was burned at such a young age, I know the challenges of being a burn survivor in elementary school, middle school and high school,” she said. “I know the challenges you face as a woman, when your body is scarred and you’re entering into a relationship.

“That’s part of my history,” she said. “It’s opened a whole world for me.”

At a glance:
WHAT: 2nd annual “Stop, Drop & Roll” 5K Fun Run/Walk (chip-timed)
WHEN: 8 a.m. Oct. 4
WHERE: Moody Gardens, 1 Hope Blvd., in Galveston
INFO: Visit or call 409-747-2076