Column: Severely burned sixth-grader has found a new cause

Priest James Rivera, 16, on the new putting green he designed at UCSD Health's Bannister Family House for long-term patients.
(Courtesy photo)

Priest Rivera, now 16, wants to design and install putting greens at medical facilities for recovering patients


Three years after a school science experiment gone wrong left him with severe burns, student Priest James Rivera credits his recovery to his passion for golf.

“I don’t know if I would have survived if it was not for golf,” he says.

After a few days in intensive care at UCSD Health’s burn center, Rivera asked his dad to bring in his Scotty Cameron putter.

“I would get out of the hospital bed with bandages and equipment hooked up to me and putt three balls into an empty glass my father would hold,” recalls the former patient.

He credits that simple exercise with helping him heal by taking his mind off the horrific accident, which literally set him on fire, his painful gauze-wrapped face and his ongoing treatments.

Rivera, 16, now is giving others the opportunity to take their minds away from their suffering through the game of golf.

With the help of his parents, Gina and Jason Rivera, he has established The Priest James Foundation.

Its mission is to install putting greens at medical facilities where patients suffering from emotional or traumatic injuries can focus on putting — rather than pain — and speed healing.

His first putting green will be unveiled June 25 at the Bannister Family House, a home-away-from-home for families of patients in long-term care at UC San Diego Health in Hillcrest.

“Golf is a mental sport that you must stay focused on ... there is no time to think about anything else during a friendly round, practice or tournament,” Rivera says.

He was hands-on in designing the Bannister house putting green, mapping out four holes and a fifth spot that could be used for chipping onto the green.

Rivera envisions installing putting greens at many more facilities — children’s hospitals, medical centers and military care facilities. He wants to attract corporate donors and grow his foundation to expand his mission into other states.

“I am so proud of Priest and how he has turned tragedy into an opportunity,” his mother says. “He inspires me with how far he has come and how he wants to help others. Considering that three years ago he was lying in a hospital bed not knowing if he would make it, every day is a blessing for me.”

At the time of his accident, Rivera was a sixth-grader at Capri Elementary School in Encinitas. He was outside with his classmates watching his teacher demonstrate a “black snake” experiment. If all goes correctly, a mixture of baking soda and sugar is ignited and blossoms into a snake-like coil of carbon ash.

It was a windy day, however, and a little too much rubbing alcohol resulted in an explosion when it ignited. Rivera’s face, neck and hair caught on fire. The 13-year-old student suffered severe burns before it could be extinguished. He spent a week in UC San Diego’s burn center with burns on his forehead, cheeks, neck, left and right ears, left eyelid and chest.

He underwent at least five surgeries. His swollen face was swathed in bandages, and he described his pain as 8 on a scale of 10.

On June 13, 2019, Priest James Rivera, 13, was injured during a school science experiment. This photo was take a week later.
On June 13, 2019, Priest James Rivera, 13, was injured during a science experiment at an Encinitas school. This photo was take a week later.
(Courtesy photo)

His family filed a lawsuit against the Encinitas Union School District about six months after the accident. It cited poorly trained and unsupervised staff and a lack of fire safety equipment, such as goggles, protective clothing, fire extinguishers and a fire blanket to smother flames.

The case was confidentially resolved about a year ago, and the teen reports that the school district since has introduced additional safety precautions during science experiments.

Rivera is about to start his sophomore year at Santa Fe Christian School. His facial wounds have healed, but he still is getting treatment for the scarring and meets regularly with his psychologists. More surgery is in his future, but physicians want to postpone it until he is older.

“The doctors did a fantastic job treating my injuries; the scarring is minimal until you look closely,” he says. “The nice thing is that most of my friends treat me like any other kid.”

Meanwhile, Rivera has embraced his passion for golf. He made the second team all league of the 2022 boys’ golf Coastal League in San Diego as a freshman. “I am proud of this considering everything I have been through,” he says.

He went from not being sure he would regain full vision in his left eye to shooting a hole-in-one on a 154-yard par 3 hole at St. Mark Golf Course in San Marcos. “I believe this was my very first tournament back after my accident.”

In January, at 15, he participated in the Farmers Insurance Open PGA Pre-Qualifier. While jittery nerves sabotaged his score on the first nine holes, he finished the back nine at 1 over par from the pro tees at the Eastlake Golf Club.

It comes as no surprise that Rivera is striving for a career as a pro golfer.

In addition to his foundation, the teenager is launching a podcast later this summer called “Burn Factory.”

As a fan of mixed martial arts and Ultimate Fighting Championship matches, he plans to interview fighters, athletes, celebrities and others about their “Burn Moment” — that defining moment, similar to his Scotty Cameron putter experience at the hospital, that individuals decide they are going to dig deep and not let whatever trauma they are experiencing defeat them.

Priest already has lined up some celebrity athletes for live interviews followed by a nine-hole match or putting duel at the Omni La Costa Resort course. His family plans to begin videotaping next month and airing the podcasts in August.

While Rivera isn’t sure when, or where, his next putting green will open, he wants to raise funding “to install as many as we can and help change a lot of lives. ...

“I thought it might be nice to share golf with others who have suffered traumatic and emotional injuries,” he says.