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 it.

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 watching.

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 about dating."

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 volunteer counselors.

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 life-changing experience.

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 week."

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 counselors.

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 mainstay."

"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 a family."

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 Collier

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