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Camp connect

Separated by foster care, brothers and sisters bond here.

(Page 2 of 2)

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.

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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.


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