Camp to Belong is a summer camp that reunites siblings separated by the foster system for a week of activities and fun. Last week, 100 siblings were reunited at Miracle Ranch in Port Orchard.
Camp to Belong was founded in 1995 by Lynn Price a former youth in care, hosts camps in 10 states across America as well as three in Australia. Camp To Belong Northwest, founded in 2005 by Karyn Schimmels of Oregon, formerly included foster youth from Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Alaska. In 2008, 45 children from Washington traveled to Idaho to see their siblings and that’s when the idea for Camp To Belong Washington was born. Directors April VanGesen and Deb Kennedy along with Bob Partlow from DSHS launched Camp To Belong Washington in 2009 at Miracle Ranch Camp in Port Orchard.
“If you haven’t seen [your siblings] for several years, how do you start that process?” VanGesen said in a previous interview with the Independent. “It’s easy to drift apart if you don’t have somebody that’s helping to bring you back together.”
As with most summer camps, the siblings engage in activities such as swimming, horseback riding, a ropes course and a rodeo. However, there are other offerings that are not typical summer camp activities.
“My favorite activity is ‘birthday party,’” Lizzie, 14, said. Lizzie and her younger sister Carole, 13, have come to Camp to Belong every summer for the last five years.
It’s easy for young people to take for granted their siblings and shared family time.
But for a select few, circumstances not of their creation have taken away the most precious individuals they will ever know: their brother or sister.
Camp to Belong exists to make sure some of the absence so keenly felt by children in the foster-care system is reduced. Children who find themselves placed in foster care experience a jolt to their emotional system. But when their siblings also enter the system, the shock can be multiplied.
Unfortunately, many of these siblings are split up to live in separate households.
“The camp gathers gifts that we each get to choose for each other. We weren’t actually together on each other’s birthday,” Lizzie said. “The camp staff decorates the dining hall. There is cake and everything.”
Lizzie and Carole haven’t seen each other since camp last year and were excited to celebrate together. While Lizzie lives in Yelm, Carole lives in Idaho Falls, Idaho and was the farthest camper to travel to see their sibling this year.
“The camp makes sure we have the best experience possible,” Carole said.
Other activities that camp supports is a Life Seminar for campers 14 and up and a youth seminar for the younger campers 8-13. This year in the Life Seminar the older campers learned of several educational opportunities for foster youth after high school; Job Corps, The College Success Foundation, The Army and The University of Washington Champions, were among some that shared. These campers were challenged and given hope for life after 18 and foster care.
The younger campers met law enforcement, watched K-9 demonstrations, discussed bullying, learned of fire safety and participated with an Armed Special Forces Unit.
“Many [campers] have had negative experiences with law enforcement,” Jon VanGesen, April’s husband, said. “Bringing them here reinforces the good. It sets the compass again.”
Jon is a lieutenant for the Kitsap County Sheriff’s Office. He and his wife, along with fellow co-director Deb Kenedy, have foster and adopted sibling groups through the foster care system. Camp To Belong Washington and reuniting siblings is something they live. Each summer 100 campers are invited to attend, along with just as many volunteers. In its 8 th year Camp To Belong WA will have reunited 777 brothers and sisters.Now, 100 campers attend every year along with just as many volunteers.
“We put together a lot of experiences that happen throughout the year that they don’t always get to enjoy together,” VanGesen said.
Another special evening is the final night at camp. It’s called the Night of 100 Stars, representing the 100 siblings who have been reunited. The Night of 100 Stars is a formal dinner put on by the camp.
The dining hall is transformed with decorations, white linen table cloths, centerpieces and candles. Counselors share performances and speeches during dinner. Afterward, a dance party gets started as a DJ takes the stage.
Earlier in the week, the campers get to walk through a pop-up shop located in the camp offices. Thanks to volunteers from the National Charity League, every camper gets to shop for a formal outfit to wear to the Night of 100 Stars dinner. And best of all? They get to keep whatever they pick.
“Every girl ends up finding a dress they love,” said Briand Angiuli, a representative for the National Charity League. “It’s a miraculous thing that happens at Camp to Belong.
“The guys choose a shirt, tie, pants and a jacket. We hope that they can use them for an interview, and the girls could use them for prom dresses or a formal event.”
The National Charity League works to foster mother-daughter relationships in a philanthropic organization committed to community service, leadership development and cultural experiences. At Camp to Belong, the mother-daughter volunteers brought formal dresses and suits for campers to choose.
The campers aren’t the only ones who gained some insight.
“It’s been so rewarding for our girls to see this side of things,” Agiuli said. “There is so much they take for granted. We have girls who come in who’ve never worn or owned a dress in their life.
“We had a 16-year-old who was overwhelmed when she tried on her dress. She asked, ‘I really get to keep it?’ It was heartwarming. We want our girls to understand they have it pretty good.”Both Lizzie and Carole found dresses they have loved all five years they have attended camp.
“This year’s dress might be my favorite,” Carole said. “I always pick a black one, but this year I found a pink and orange one.”
Although Lizzie said she isn’t a fan of dresses, she’s always found ones she liked. And it’s not just girls. Angiluli said boys come in asking for bow ties, high-fiving and strutting their stuff for their friends.
“I don’t think enough people know it goes on in their own community,” Angiuli said. “This camp is so amazing, and we just do this tiny part.”
In Washington state, 9,500 children on average are in foster care at any given time. Nationally, with up to 75 percent of foster children separated from at least one sibling, VanGesen and Kennedy saw a need to fill, and have made countless memories for children (and volunteers) ever since.
Camp To Belong Washington relies solely on donations from individuals, businesses, corporations and grants. To donate, or look for ways to volunteer, visit www.camptobelongwa.org.