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Separated siblings enjoy time together at camp

The Camp to Belong program held at Miracle Ranch in South Kitsap gives siblings who live in separate foster homes the chance to spend a fun week together. - Chris Chancellor/Staff photo
The Camp to Belong program held at Miracle Ranch in South Kitsap gives siblings who live in separate foster homes the chance to spend a fun week together.
— image credit: Chris Chancellor/Staff photo

The number of recreational activities appear infinite.

There was horseback riding and swimming for 100 children at last week’s Camp to Belong at South Kitsap’s Miracle Ranch.

But for 17-year-old Marco and other campers, it was a byproduct of the most integral part of the experience: getting to see his two younger sisters.

“You get to reconnect with your siblings and have a good time,” he said. “You learn something new about them every day; every hour.”

Camp to Belong, which was founded in 1995, is designed to reunite siblings in foster care.

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 Washington, so this gathering was the third annual camp held in the state.

She said the idea to have a camp focused on foster children in Washington started when they had to cut 121 applicants down to 45 Washington spots at the last Northwest camp.

“The need was so high that it was time to figure out a way to do our own camp to better serve our youth in Washington state,” VanGesen said.

VanGesen, 40, who co-directs the camp with Deb Kennedy, 41, said there were about 100 counselors and unpaid staff members volunteered to work with the children for five days and five nights. VanGesen said half of the volunteer positions are counselors.

“They’re not just monitoring,” she said. “We want our counselors to be able to play with these kids — scrapbook and play ball with them. They’re engaging with them and helping them engage with their siblings.”

Marco, 17, and his sisters were one of the 39 sibling groups represented at the camp. He grew up near Burien, but now lives in Port Orchard, while one of his sisters resides in Northgate. Similar to many others, the camp might represent the only time he will see her this year.

As second-year campers, Marco and his siblings exchanged blankets with personal messages in scripted to one another. Last year, they made pillows.

“They said what they really meant on the blankets,” Marco said. “I still have the pillow that they made two years ago for me. It means a lot. When I go to bed, they’re right there next to me.”

The camp featured several bonding moments, including a birthday night where campers chose a donated gift to present to their siblings and shared a cake.

But Kennedy, who noted that foster children often do not attend college and have below-average graduation rates for high school, wanted more than recreational activities. She brought in former foster-care children who work in a variety of professions and others who provided career advice. Campers were given aptitude tests and advice on interview skills and resume writing.

“The kids found out these are naturally things I like to do anyway,” Kennedy said.

Marco agreed. He said the aptitude test indicated he likes “hands-on” work, which fits with his goal to join the Army after he graduates from high school.

“They changed my way in life and how I look at it,” said Marco, who hopes to return to camp next year in a volunteer role as a high-school ambassador. ‘I always thought I didn’t have a normal life. I always asked God why I wasn’t born … with two parents and a perfect family. Since I came to this camp, it has changed my outlook on life.”

VanGesen said that is a message frequently promoted at camp.

“What we teach them is that while someone else has written an inch of your story, that doesn’t define you for the rest of your life,” she said. “We empower them.”

VanGesen said that might start with a sibling contacting a social worker to see their brother or sister. Or if the distance is too great, perhaps just friending them on Facebook.

“If you haven’t seen them for several years, how do you start that process?” she said. “It’s easy to drift apart if you don’t have somebody that’s helping to bring you back together.”

VanGesen and Kennedy, 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 her husband, Jon, a Kitsap County Sheriff’s deputy, who called about an infant girl he removed from a household.

According to VanGesen, there are about 9,000 children in the state’s foster-care system and about 80 percent of them are separated from their siblings.

Even though the staff is unpaid, VanGesen said the camp still costs $80,000, as participants, who do not pay for expenses, travel from places such as Texas.

Kennedy and VanGesen soon will start prepare to fundraise for next year’s camp. Both also would like to add a second camp if possible — VanGesen said there were 300 applicants this year — but would need more donations to make it possible.

Contact her via email at avangesen@fosterfamilyconnections.org for more information.

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