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South Kitsap camp gives foster kids a week together

Eddie, 18, looks over photos he took at Miracle Ranch last week as Camp to Belong co-director April VanGesen looks on. - Justine Frederiksen/Staff Photo
Eddie, 18, looks over photos he took at Miracle Ranch last week as Camp to Belong co-director April VanGesen looks on.
— image credit: Justine Frederiksen/Staff Photo

When Port Orchard resident Deb Kennedy heard about three toddlers that needed a foster home, she and another woman agreed to take them in.

“I have two, and my friend, who lives nearby, has the third,” said Kennedy, 39, explaining that the 2-year-old triplets see each other several times a week.

And while the best scenario would be to have all the children in a stable home together, Kennedy said the triplets are much luckier than many foster children, who may only see their siblings once or twice a year.

“And those visits may be in an office, with adults watching them and taking notes on everything they say,” Kennedy said. “That’s not how you bond or work out issues.”

Instead, Kennedy said, siblings should be able to meet in a “relaxed, fun atmosphere,” which is exactly what happened last week when South Kitsap’s Miracle Ranch hosted “Camp to Belong.”

Designed to reunite siblings in foster care, Camp to Belong was founded in 1995 and hosts camps in several states. The Northwest chapter — which includes Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Alaska — was founded by Karyn Schimmels of Oregon in 2005, and last week’s gathering on Horseshoe Lake was the first camp held in Washington.

“We had 172 applicants for 75 spots,” said April VanGesen, 38, who co-directed the camp with Kennedy and joined more than 30 counselors and other unpaid staff for five days and five nights.

“All of our counselors are volunteers, and take a week off of work to be here,” VanGesen said. “They just believe in their heart it is the right thing.”

The week included standard camp activities such as hikes, campfires and music, but also special touches like “Inspiration Night,” where campers shared their feelings, and a camp-wide birthday party.

Since many of the siblings didn’t spend their birthdays together, VanGesen said each child’s birthday was celebrated at the camp.

“We had a birthday ‘shop’ where each camper could pick a present for their siblings,” VanGesen said. “And each sibling group was given a birthday cake, donated by Cakes For Kids.”

To record their time at the camp, each child was given a disposable camera to take pictures throughout the week. On Friday, the campers selected their favorites and made “memory books” with supplies donated by Creative Memories.

And just as students spend the last day of school having people sign their yearbooks, the campers spent much of Friday asking others to sign their Memory Books.

Including Eddie, 18, of Oregon, who asked VanGesen to sign his book while Schimmels signed a book for his 17-year-old brother, Jeremiah.

“The last time we saw each other was two months ago,” Jeremiah said,

Since Eddie is 18, he can return to the camp next year as a counselor, which he said he planned to do.

A counselor named Beth, also 18, said she was a camper for six years before deciding to volunteer as a counselor this year.

“My siblings and I have gone so many times, we decided to give up our spots and let some other kids come,” she said.

Beth, who lives in Bend, Ore., said coming to the camp the first time “filled a hole in my heart,” and after spending time with her four siblings, she requested that they be able to live closer.

Soon, she said, they were all very close — an older sibling living with her, two more together nearby, and the fourth just down the street.

“That’s another thing the camp does for these kids,” VanGesen said, explaining that before coming to camp, many kids in foster care don’t know that they can ask to see their siblings, or have them live closer. “It gives them a voice, when they feel they don’t have one.”

VanGesen and Kennedy, who are both mothers to adopted and foster children, founded Foster Family Connections, which they hope will provide information and support to current foster families, and perhaps encourage others to become foster parents.

“There is such a need; we need good, strong families to step up,” Kennedy said. “I knew a retired couple that fostered a total of 85 kids. I saw the difference they made, and it normalized it for me.

“Yes, it is exhausting,” she continued. “But it is so worthwhile. I became a foster mom to change their lives, but they have changed mine.”

VanGesen said she was inspired to become a foster mother after learning about children whose homes had been disrupted from her husband, a Kitsap County Sheriff’s deputy.

“We would talk about these children and wonder, ‘What will happen to them now? Where do they go?” she recalled. “Once you know about the need, it’s hard to pretend you don’t.”

According to VanGesen, there are 10,000 kids in foster care in Washington State, but only 5,800 spots in foster homes.

She said that anyone who cannot commit to becoming a foster parent can always donate time or money to organizations like Camp to Belong. For more information, contact her via e-mail at: avangesen@fosterfamilyconnections.org

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