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2020 Toolbox — Camp To Belong: Reuniting Siblings in Foster Care While Creating a Lifetime of Shared Memories through the Summer Camp Experience
If I had the choice of spending a whole year in Hawaii or one hour with my brother and sisters, I would choose my siblings. — Luke (camper)
You feel excitement in the air as four siblings line up to get on their respective horses. You see the family resemblance — sandy hair peeking out of helmets; freckles galore; and big, beautiful brown eyes. For Lindy, Luke, Alex, and Amanda, ages nine to seventeen, this is a week of “firsts” — first time riding a horse, first time singing silly songs around a campfire, first time eating s’mores, and the first time they have seen each other since they were sepa¬rated and placed into foster care ten months earlier. For the next week, Lindy and her siblings spend time just being brothers and sisters at Camp To Belong, where the mission is to reunite siblings separated in foster care or other types of out-of-home care, creating shared memories to last a lifetime.
Camp To Belong was founded in 1995 by Lynn Price. As a youth in foster care herself, Lynn discovered at age eight that she had been separated from her biological sister after years of feeling as though something (or someone) was missing in her life. With limited visits throughout their childhood, Price and sister, Andi, only developed a solid friendship as young adults. As their relationship continued to deepen, they realized how much they loved and needed each other, while sadly realizing how much they had missed growing up apart. From Lynn’s own personal experiences, she chose to make a difference in the lives of brothers and sisters in care.
Camp To Belong was her way of allowing siblings to share valuable connections and for them to discover that foster care does not define who or what they become as adults. The first Camp To Belong was held in 1995 at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. It consisted of thirty-two sib¬lings and a “pretend” makeshift campfire for gatherings of s’mores and campfire songs. Today, entering its eighteenth year, Camp To Belong has reunited over 4,500 siblings across the country with member camps located in California, Georgia, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, New York, and Oregon.
All of the signature activities at a Camp To Belong are intentionally designed to bring siblings, ages eight to eighteen, to-gether to strengthen their bonds. Most of the siblings miss out on birthday celebra¬tions throughout the year, so camp-wide birthday parties provide a chance for all attending youth to honor their brothers and sisters. Siblings shop for each other during the day in the “camp birthday store,” wrap presents, and design hand-made birthday cards with heartfelt wishes to give each other during the party. Dining halls are converted into “birthday central,” with sounds of laughter and cheers encircling all attending. Each camper is also given a disposable camera at the start of the week to capture the special moments shared with their siblings. On the last day, every camper makes a scrapbook full of photos of one another, capturing a sense of the memories created during this very special week in their lives. At closing campfire, each camper and counselor is given a chance to share their thoughts, and many tears of happiness mix with the heartfelt stories. At this point in the week, many campers feel very comfortable with one another and have developed strength from knowing that there are other people (just like them) going through the same emotional challenges. A sense of acceptance and support fills each room during this very critical night of camp.
Camp To Belong operates with an all volunteer counselor cadre. Counselors come from all walks of life — college students, lawyers, firefighters, accountants, nurses, teachers, and social workers, just to name a few. Counselors attend a minimum two-day training and work hand-in-hand, forming the necessary teamwork to conduct a week-long camp. The only general requirement for counselors is an unwavering love and commitment to the siblings served. In the summer of 2011, Camp To Belong counselors contributed over 58,000 volunteer hours to the program.
Since the first camp in Nevada, Camp To Belong has grown to seven member camps in the United States and one in Australia, with several states in the process of becoming members. Member camps are run by nonprofits in each respective community to form relationships with their campsite partners. Since most member camps only operate one week of camp, they do not own their campsite but utilize campsites across the country. Camp To Belong requires that all member camps use camp facilities that are accredited by the American Camp Association. This ensures that every camp meets the same requirements; that camp staff are trained and qualified for activities; and that campers are safe in the activities they participate in. Camp To Belong understands ACA camps have integrity and truly understand the meaning of “camp,” which helps give the best outcome for all kids who attend.
What started out as a business relation¬ship with ACA has developed into an amazing partnership. Camp To Belong Georgia will conduct its fifth season at Camp Twin Lakes in 2012. Camp Twin Lakes, as with most camp partners, makes its staff available to participate with sibling groups in the special bonding activities. This strengthens the integration of the staff members and demonstrates full commitment to the campers. Camp Twin Lakes views all of its programs as partnerships and not clients. Dan Mathews, director of camping services at Camp Twin Lakes said, “Camp To Belong Georgia has opened our eyes to the plight of children living in foster care. Like a lot of people, we had no idea that siblings were separated when placed in foster care.”
Kevin Couey, senior camp director for Camp Silver Creek in Oregon, has all hands on deck during Camp To Belong Northwest, including Moses, the camel. “This is a very special camp population and it is our honor and privilege to serve and to work alongside the dedicated counselors of Camp To Belong,” said Couey, acknowledging that Camp To Belong impacts his staff as much as it does the siblings who attend. Karyn Schimmels, camp director for Camp To Belong Northwest, shares that the staff at Silver Creek go above and beyond during the week of camp to be creative and extremely flexible in delivering a fun and nurturing atmosphere. Schimmels shares, “the camp’s trust and belief in what we do enable us to facilitate incredible healing and joy to children who are so deserving of our time.”
With a national average cost of $750 per camper, no foster child is ever charged to attend Camp To Belong. Instead, funds are raised locally and nationally with donations from individuals and businesses and fundraising events. The partnership with ACA camp partners, in many cases, goes above and beyond the actual week-long experience of Camp To Belong. For example, Camp Twin Lakes helps year-round fundraising for Camp To Belong Georgia, which has allowed their program to grow in the number of siblings who attend camp.
Most of us take for granted sibling interaction and don’t realize that it is often the longest relationship throughout life. Camp To Belong understands this and works to touch lives. Siblings reunite as a family for a week at beautiful camps giving them lifelong memories, newfound strength, and a belief that all things are possible. Oftentimes, older campers who have aged out of the system become counselors, and many other counselors, touched by the experience, become foster or adoptive parents or serve throughout the year as Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA). Campsite partners become part of the Camp To Belong family, helping make a difference to youth in care.
If you would like to donate, volunteer, find out how your camp can become a site for Camp To Belong, or learn more about how to bring Camp To Belong to your community, visit www.camptobelong.org or e-mail email@example.com.
Sherry Brock has served as executive director of Camp To Belong since 2007. Having prior experience with a national network, she was the perfect candidate to help grow Camp To Belong. She holds a BA from the University of Arizona and has been in nonprofit management for more than twenty years.
Originally published in the 2012 March/April Camping Magazine.