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.
"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.
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."
Lane recalls that for the Figueroa kids, coming to camp was their first vacation together as a family. They ate together, worked out conflicts together – not during a mandated visit to a child-welfare office, but on a hike, in a cabin, around a campfire.
For children whose joint memories are often enmeshed with police sirens, custody battles, and court dates, Camp to Belong generates fresh, affirming, shared experiences.
"They are not remembering the time when the police showed up and arrested Mom and Dad," says Karyn Schimmels, CTB board chairman and program director for CTB-Northwest in Oregon. "They can say, 'Hey, remember the time we were horseback riding at the camp and you fell off the horse and we laughed so hard?' "
By empowering foster kids, CTB has also influenced child-welfare policy in several states, says Ms. Schimmels, who is a training manager for the Oregon Department of Human Services, Child Welfare Division. "The kids who do get bonded get more connected. They do find their voice, in terms of themselves, of what they advocate for themselves."
As campers mature, they also tend to succeed in life because they maintain a connection to family.
Take Beth Bunch, whom Schimmels calls "one of the most resilient young ladies I've ever been involved with." Now living in Corvallis, Ore., Ms. Bunch, who is now 20, spent most of her life in foster care, separated from her four siblings. Bunch first attended CTB in 2001 with two siblings. One more sibling joined them the next year. Then Bunch and three of her four siblings were placed in the same home. Two years after that, all five attended camp, and returned every year until 2007. In 2008, Bunch started her CTB training to become an adult counselor. This summer will mark her 10th year in the CTB family.
While Bunch is committed to promoting sibling contact in the public child-welfare system, she also recognizes that teens will be teens, and recalls her own initial feelings of ambivalence and fear about seeing her siblings at camp.
"I didn't know them. I hadn't seen them for so long. I went to camp and I was like, 'I don't want to be here,' " Bunch says. Then "after three or four days, you realize how much you missed them." As a counselor, Bunch hands out "cool cards" to her campers. These represent the icy reserve teens carry in their back pockets. She makes them rip up the cards, telling them, "We're not here to be cool. This is an amazing week. You're here to spend time with your family."
"We were beyond skeptical," says one camper, who preferred to remain anonymous. "Why are you dragging us here? I'm 18. We're going to sing 'Kumbaya'?"
Jonathan Figueroa recalls wanting to go home.
These kids start out mistrustful, but supervised by volunteer counselors, they begin to break down walls of doubt and cynicism. The Figueroas went horseback riding, canoed, and swam. They supported and encouraged each other at the climbing wall. They made scrapbooks for each other (using photos they took with disposable cameras), which became lifelines later on during long stretches between seeing each other.
Since siblings usually miss each others' birthdays, a camp-wide birthday party lets siblings exchange gifts. Jonathan gave his twin brother Joshua some Red Sox trading cards (even though he's a Yankees fan). Jonathan is back living with his mother, who is now sober. The siblings finally all live in Lowell and see each other frequently.
"I feel like I'm stronger from it," says Ashley. "I feel a lot of people can learn from our story." Ashley is at Salem State University and wants to be a social worker. She's also applying to be a CTB counselor this summer.
Ten-year veteran volunteer Schimmels says CTB "gets you under the skin." She tells the story of how the Oregon camp reunited a 20-year-old with his 10-year-old brother. He'd last seen him as an infant. The younger brother wanted to know who he looked like. The older brother was able to answer, "You have Mom's lips, Grandpa's ears, my feet," Schimmels recounts. "To have someone to say, 'This is who you are,' " she says – it's a connection every kid deserves.