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Camp offers separated siblings an opportunity to bond

It is a simple quilt with a stitched-in flower pattern.

But for 15-year-old Anna Keller, it is a keepsake.

Keller, who received the gift from her brother Andrey Polunets, 17, was one of 97 children who participated in Camp to Belong, which was founded in 1995 and designed to reunite siblings in foster care, last week.

The Northwest chapter — which used to include Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Alaska — was founded in 2005 by Karyn Schimmels of Oregon, and included 45 children from Washington. But April VanGesen wanted to include more children from our state and last week’s gathering at South Kitsap’s Miracle Ranch was the second camp held in Washington.

More than 65 counselors and unpaid staff members volunteered to work with the children for five days and five nights. VanGesen, 39, who co-directs the camp with Deb Kennedy, 40, said activities included traditional events such as campfires, hikes and music, but there also was “Inspiration Night,” where everyone celebrated birthdays and shared stories. VanGesen said each camper celebrates birthdays because many siblings do not spend them together.

“It’s a good time to spend with your siblings,” said Polunets, who lives in Yakima. “I don’t always get a chance to talk with them because I don’t always have their (phone) numbers.”

But Polunets said his favorite experience came from sharing stories. He said he feels awkward talking about his life with others, but felt a connection with fellow campers who have dealt with similar experiences.

“You don’t always get people that understand where you’re coming from,” he said.

Jacob Colburn, 18, was among a handful of former campers who volunteered to return to work with this year’s adolescents, who ranged from 8 to 18 years old. Colburn was raised by his grandparents in Lakewood, but said financial constraints prevented them from keeping his three younger siblings, who were spread from rural Pierce County to Port Angeles. He said the opportunity to reunite with them during the Northwest camp in 2007 gave him a sense of completion.

“It was a great experience and I decided I wanted to start giving back to something that has given me so much,” said Colburn, who plans to major in Behavioral Neuroscience this fall at Western Washington University.

Keller, who lives in Monroe, said she already had a career in mind before attending the camp, but said it has further motivated her.

“I’ve been inspired to be a social worker,” she said. “I want to help kids know they still have a future and their lives aren’t ruined. I want to encourage them.”

VanGesen said she hopes more children have that opportunity in the future. Even though the staff is unpaid, she said the camp still costs $85,000 as participants, who do not pay for expenses, travel from places such as New York and Texas. VanGesen, who would like to add a second camp in the future, said they narrow the applicant pool down from about 200 candidates based on who has not seen their siblings for the longest duration.

Kennedy and VanGesen, both of whom are mothers to adopted and foster children, are the founders of Foster Family Connections. They hope the organization will support current foster families and perhaps encourage others to become foster parents.

Kennedy became inspired to become a foster parent through a couple she met who cared for 85 children, while VanGesen said her motivation came from a phone call from her husband, Jon, a Kitsap County Sheriff’s deputy, who called about an infant girl he removed from a household.

“After learning the need for foster homes, how could I not be one,” said VanGesen.

According to VanGesen, there are roughly 11,000 children in the state’s foster-care system, but only 5,800 licensed foster homes. She said 89 percent of foster children are separated from their siblings.

VanGesen said anyone who cannot commit to becoming a foster parent can donate to organizations such as Camp to Belong. Contact her via e-mail at avangesen@fosterfamilyconnections.org for more information.

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