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Camp connect

Separated by foster care, brothers and sisters bond here.

By Ethan GilsdorfContributor / May 20, 2011

Camp to Belong volunteer Lynn Meissner (c.) accompanied children being towed on a lake in Hinsdale, Mass., in 2009. The camp brings together siblings separated by foster care.

Courtesy of Camp to Belong

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Ashley Figueroa will never forget the day in 1995 when she and her siblings were taken away from their mother and placed in foster care.

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"They told us we were going to McDonald's," she says. "We were all crying. What kid doesn't want a Happy Meal? But we didn't get a Happy Meal."

Their mother struggled with substance abuse and lived with an abusive boyfriend. Their father was absent.

The children lived in a series of foster and family-based kinship homes both in their hometown of Lowell, Mass., and as far away as Ohio and New York.

Then three years ago, seven of the 10 kids came to Camp to Belong in Hinsdale, Mass. "We lost contact for six or seven years," says the bubbly Ashley, now 20. "Camp to Belong brought us together."

"We had never been to a place like that before," says her brother, Jonathan, 13. "We had never been so happy."

Now in its 17th year, Camp to Belong (CTB) has a mission to reunite siblings ages 8 to 20 separated in foster homes and other out-of-home care situations. The camp experience changes lives.

Lynn Price, founder of the camp, was herself once disconnected from a sibling due to foster care. "I didn't know I had a sister until I was 8 years old," she says. But as she began working with the homeless and children in foster care, she started to see how brothers and sisters were losing track of each other. "I realized they were going to miss out on childhood memories."

CTB has grown to nine camps in eight states – Georgia, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, Oregon, California, Washington, and, new this year, New York – plus Australia. Ms. Price's hope is to one day offer camps in each of the 50 states.

Some 550,000 children live in foster care in the United States. But even if they live in the same town or go to the same school, 75 percent of these kids live separately from a sibling. CTB gives them a chance to connect and feel empowered by that sibling connection, to read a book or eat breakfast or roughhouse together – the kinds of daily interactions most families take for granted. Thus far, the organization has forged bonds among more than 3,700 brothers and sisters.

"For the first time, we were surrounded by kids who understood," Ashley says, recalling her first summer at the week-long Massachusetts camp. "We were finally all in the same place." The Figueroa kids found themselves among peers for whom foster care was not a source of shame.

"I've seen the change. They get closer and closer," says Kelley Lane, program director at CTB Massachusetts and at Sibling Connections, which helps siblings share experiences like tubing, skating, and rock climbing year-round.

CTB stresses that while foster care is a relatively short phase in a child's life, sibling relationships are enduring. That's why what happens at camp can be so crucial, and why a lack of contact among separated siblings can breed stress.

"They worry about each other. Their health and well-being is affected," says Judy Cockerton, Massachusetts camp director and organizer of the Re-Envisioning Foster Care Conference in Holyoke, Mass., earlier this month. With Ms. Lane, she also helps run Sibling Connections, whose regular weekend programs improve the success of the once-a-year CTB. "We make sure [siblings] are connected before they come to camp."

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