Camp To Belong: Where foster kids
collect sibling memories
By Lorna Collier
Published August 1, 1999 (Chicago Tribune, Health & Family section)
Thirteen-year-old Kim stands in front of a group of 80 fellow campers
in a large dining hall. In her arms, she cradles a pillow she has just
made for her 9-year-old brother, Jesse, who waits beside her to receive
The pillow is decorated with bows and velvet trim. But what makes it
special is the message Kim has written on it.
She begins to read the words out loud so that both Jesse and the other
children can hear them, trying to keep her voice steady as her tears
begin to flow.
"I just wanted to tell you that I love you and you're one of the best
things that's ever happened to me," Kim says softly. "If I lost you, I
don't know how I could go on with my life. I know it's hard not being
home, but if we stick together, then we'll get through this. Don't ever
give up. I'll never stop loving you."
They aren't the kinds of words you might expect to hear from a teenage
girl to her kid brother, especially at summer camp, with everybody
But then, this is Camp To Belong, a special camp dedicated to reuniting
siblings like Kim and Jesse, who have been separated from each other
and live in different foster homes.
For one week each year, foster children aged 7 through 18 come to Camp
to Belong to spend time with their brothers and sisters. For many, the
six days of camp are the only time in their lives when they can be
together in an unstructured setting, with no social workers taking
notes, no case managers watching clocks.
It is a time for repairing bonds broken by months or even years living
apart, as well as a time to build childhood memories – a shared canoe
ride, a horseback lesson – that will perhaps last a lifetime.
The camp was created by Lynn Price, 44, a Colorado telecommunications
executive who was herself a foster child raised separately from a
sibling: her sister, Andi Andree, a 46-year-old special education
teacher living in Sycamore. Today Price and Andree run Camp To Belong.
As children, though, the sisters had little contact with each other –
Price was raised in Skokie, Andree on the South Side. It wasn't until
they connected as young adults that they realized how much they loved
and needed each other, and also how much they had missed by not being
able to share their childhoods.
"Your sibling relationship is your most important and most long-lasting
relationship," Price says. Children who don't grow up with their
siblings, she says, "miss out on what others take for granted – whether
it's fighting over who's going to sit where in the car, asking for help
with homework or celebrating holidays together or asking for advice
Caroline Burry, an assistant professor of clinical child welfare at the
University of Maryland, former foster parent and a member of the Child
Welfare League of America's Foster Care Advisory Committee, agrees with
the Camp To Belong concept.
"It's great. I like the idea of siblings being able to have a
relationship. They have ties and they were witnesses to the same
events, good and bad, and have that shared history."
Though there hasn't been any research exploring the effect of sibling
separation on foster children, Burry notes that studies have found
adoptive children often make great efforts to find their separated
siblings, even when there has not been a prior relationship, due to the
intensity of ties that people feel with their brothers and sisters.
About three-fourths of the 500,000 children in foster care in the
United States are separated from brothers or sisters, a fact Price and
Andree hope to change through their 5-year-old, non-profit Camp To
Belong organization. In addition to hosting yearly camps and organizing
periodic regional reunions, the sisters try to spread the word, through
speeches, newsletters and their Web site, about the importance of
keeping siblings together in foster care.
Their main event, though, is the summer camp, which in many ways is a
typical camp: Kids stay in cabins, are assigned to counselors and
participate in such activities as horseback riding, boating, swimming
and talent shows.
However, Camp To Belong has some differences. Tears and hugs are
common, as children work through feelings of deep loss, sadness, anger,
uncertainty and abiding love.
"The first day I'm there, I'm realizing all over again how easy it is
to cry, and how OK it is to cry," Andree says.
The camp tries to build sibling ties in a variety of ways. Children
make "sibling pillows," which are keepsake pillows decorated with
messages they write for their siblings; siblings are encouraged to
participate in activities together; and children are given photos of
each other to keep as mementos.
The camp also helps the children develop as individuals. Foster
children often suffer from low self-esteem and lack of direction;
motivational speakers are brought in to show that there is life after
"The System," while counselors who have been foster children –
including Andree and Price – speak about their experiences and how they
overcame them. Older foster children are taught about college financial
aid opportunities and are encouraged to plan for their futures.
This year's camp was held in June at Anderson Western Colorado Camp in
Gypsum, Colo., and attended by 84 children from eight states and 31
Judith Schagrin, assistant director of children's services for the
Baltimore County Department of Child Services, has placed several
foster children at Camp To Belong during the last two years, and this
year also sent two staff social workers to work as volunteer
counselors. Both the children and the social workers, Schagrin says,
had wonderful experiences.
"I think Andi and Lynn have something special," Schagrin says. "They
bring to camp a real awareness of the kids' needs. Most of the families
coming to our attention have such serious, serious problems that by the
time a child is actually placed in foster care, these are some pretty
vulnerable kids. If we can give them the stability of that relationship
with their sibling, that gives them something to hang on to."
For 19-year-old Grace, who lives with her former foster family in
Rockford, the Camp To Belong experience was "wonderful." She went to
the camp to be with her two younger sisters and a brother, who live in
separate foster homes in northern Illinois; though she is past 18,
Price and Andree made an exception and allowed her to come. "We all got
closer together. We learned a little more about each other and had fun
in the process."
When Grace's sister Margie, 11, gave her a sibling pillow, "Margie said
that she loved me and that I was a role model for everyone and that she
was proud of me. We both cried," Grace said.
Kemi, 17, and Duwane, 16, of Las Vegas also had a special time at camp.
"We got real close," Kemi says. "I'm graduating (next spring), and
Duwane was scared that he wouldn't see me anymore, that I'd go off and
leave him alone. I had to reassure him over and over: 'I love you,
you're my heart.' "
For many of the children at Camp To Belong, being around other foster
children is also of great value.
"I get to see a bunch of people who are in the same situation that I'm
in, and I feel totally free and open to talk to them about my
situation," Kemi says. "I can talk to some of my friends about it, but
they don't really understand. With the people I go to camp with, they
totally understand it."
Even the counselors often find working at the camp to be a
Teresa DeBroux, a 28-year-old social worker in Pensacola, Fla., says
the camp was "exhilarating, exhausting, emotional, refreshing. It was
almost every feeling that a person can have all rolled up into one
As a result of her experiences, DeBroux has decided to seek a degree in
political science, in order to become an advocate and lobbyist for the
rights of foster children.
"Our children need a voice," she says. "That was one thing that really
grabbed me at the camp – that so many of these children feel helpless
and caught up in a system that does not hear them."
Price's motivation for starting the camp was similar. For years before
beginning Camp To Belong in March 1995, she had worked as a volunteer
juvenile court advocate and had seen countless horror stories involving
abused and neglected children, torn apart and too often lost in an
overburdened child welfare system. This experience, coupled with her
childhood separation from her sister, prompted the idea for the camp.
Price was living in Nevada at that time and quickly put together a camp
on the campus of the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, attended by 32
local children. The next year, 54 campers came. The year after that,
the camp followed Price to Colorado, where she had moved; this time,
about 75 children took part, including 36 who flew from Las Vegas.
Last year's camp was the sisters' most ambitious yet: back-to-back
camps, one in Illinois and another in Colorado. The experience was too
much for Price and Andree, who both work full time and run the camp in
their off-hours. Even with their husbands and children helping, they
wound up exhausted, not to mention $15,000 in debt.
In the meantime, they began receiving national publicity, fueled by a
1998 President's Service Award, given to just 18 of 3,500 nominated
groups. Demand for the camp is now outpacing their ability to meet it.
This year, they scaled back to 84 campers and one site and for the
first time found themselves having to turn away campers and volunteer
This fall, Andree and Price plan to meet with a group of business
planners, lawyers and accountants to determine the best way to expand
their program nationally and what role their organization should play.
Regardless of which direction the group determines it will take, "we
will always have the camp," Price says. "It always will be our
"When it gets so hectic toward the end (of the planning)," Andree says,
"I'll think to myself, 'I don't think we can do this again.' Then on
the first day of camp, when the kids are already thanking you and
having a good time, I know this can never die."
After all, she says, camp is the place where "there are so many hugs. I
get hugged more in that week than during the entire year. We are truly
More information about Camp to Belong is available at
http://www.kacweb.com/ctb/ or by writing Camp to Belong at 10035 Keenan
St., Highlands Ranch, CO 80126, or calling 303-791-0915. The Camp to
Belong hotline number is 1-888-7-BELONG.
Copyright © 1999, Lorna