• May 2011
  • Vol. 12, No. 4

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Camp To Belong

On the last night of Washington's Camp To Belong sibling reunification gathering in August 2010, one young camper stood up to say what camp meant to her and how difficult it would be to separate from her brother the next day. Tears flowed, not words. She couldn't speak the emotion she felt. For the other 140 campers and counselors in the room, she didn't have to. They were crying with her. "The right to reunite" that is both the heart and motto of Camp To Belong was captured movingly as her brother came to her and they hugged for many long seconds.

This was the second year Washington State held its own Camp To Belong—one of nine in the United States and Australia to reunite siblings separated by foster care, adoption, or other out-of-home living situations. Before 2009, a few Washington children attended a camp in Oregon. By the time the 97 separated siblings attended the Miracle Ranch in Port Orchard (WA) in 2010, 260 Washington State brothers and sisters aged 8 to 18 had been reunited over 5 years through their camp experiences.

"I want to come and help for the rest of my life," said 18-year-old Andrew, a camper in 2009 who was a counselor in training in 2010 and attended camp both years with his brother.

Like other campers, Andrew was able to spend quality time with his brother, creating positive memories and building on what will likely be the longest life connection either of them will have. Andrew could see that his story, his journey, was not unique. He told other campers that at camp they are not judged or labeled. Everyone's story is similar.

Camp To Belong was started in 1995 by Lynn Price, who didn’t even know she had a sister until she was 8 years old. Vowing that experience should never happen to any young person separated from siblings because of out-of-home care, she began the camp experience.

Camp To Belong Washington is a partnership between Foster Family Connections, a private, nonprofit organization in Port Orchard, and Washington State's Children's Administration. Children's Administration provides substantial financial backing to supplement the fundraising done by Foster Family Connections, which runs the camp. 

Deb Kennedy and April Van Gesen are camp co-directors and foster moms who have adopted sibling groups among their large families. They make camp the great experience it is. The campers dress up in tie-dye shirts and other costumes for Rock 'N Roll Night. They enjoy a birthday party on Wednesday night with cakes provided by Free Cakes For Kids (this year featuring a 140-person conga line through the dining hall) and Carnival/Rodeo Night. Around the campfire, campers and counselors share their experiences and hopes for the future.

All campers leave with a Creative Memories book they've created from pictures they took and with a professional portrait taken of them individually and their siblings as a group. They also leave with a "sibling pillow" on which they've written messages for their siblings to hold onto when they are not together. They take with them the message that their past does not define their future, that together with their brothers and sisters they can write the story of the rest of their lives, no matter who has written the first few chapters.

On the shores of Horseshoe Lake, at the appropriately named Miracle Ranch, Andrew said it best: "Camp has been a life-changing experience for me. Miracles happen here."

For more information about Washington's Camp To Belong, contact Bob Patlow at PBOB300@dshs.wa.gov or view a short video about the camp (scroll down to link to the video):

www.dshs.wa.gov/ca/fosterparents

Contributed by Bob Patlow, Washington State Department of Social and Health Services.

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