South Kitsap camp gives separated siblings time together

Camp to Belong Washington, which had 99 children participate in a variety of activities, is designed to reunite siblings separated by foster care placements. The camp was held last week at South Kitsap
Camp to Belong Washington, which had 99 children participate in a variety of activities, is designed to reunite siblings separated by foster care placements. The camp was held last week at South Kitsap's Miracle Ranch.
— image credit: Courtesy Photo

It is more than a symbol.

For Camp to Belong founder Lynn Price, the “Right to Reunite” banner hanging from the lunchroom at South Kitsap’s Miracle Ranch is more like a mission statement.

Price, who lives in Denver, visited last week’s fourth annual Camp to Belong Washington at the Crista Camp site along Horseshoe Lake. Camp to Belong, which was founded in 1995, is designed to reunite siblings separated by foster care placements.

Price grew up in the foster care system. She was separated from her sister was when she was 8 months old. Her sister was about 2 years old. Because there were no specific policies about siblings seeing each other at the time, Price said she only saw her occasionally when their mother sought visitation. That finally changed when her sister, who was a freshman in college, asked her to visit.

“She asked if she could introduce me as her little sister,” Price said. “I felt like a celebrity and we just had an exciting time.”

Even though the two do not live near each other now — her sister is in Illinois — Price said they are “best friends.”

The opportunity to forge a relationship was the impetus behind Price starting Camp to Belong.

“It was to create an opportunity for brothers and sisters to have quality time together without the eyes of the system on them at all times,” she said.

Since Price created the initial one in Colorado, she said “member camps” now are throughout the United States and Australia. The former Northwest chapter founded in 2005 by Karyn Schimmels of Oregon included Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Alaska. But April VanGesen wanted to include more children from Washington, which spurred the camp in this 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 spots at the last Northwest camp.

VanGesen, who co-directs the camp with Deb Kennedy, said there were 50 counselors to work with the children for five days and five nights. In addition to the counselors, she said there were 96 volunteers assisting with various activities.

“I’m thrilled at how the community has come together,” Price said. “A lot more kids are getting sibling memories.”

While each camp features its own identity, Price said all of them have maintained certain elements from its roots. Those range from making pillows to remember each other to life seminars.

“They can be anything they want to be,” Price said.

Among this year’s campers were Kimmy, 12, and Kyler, 11. They have seen one another on a monthly basis for the last year, but had little contact during the previous decade.

“It means being able to spend time with my brother — getting to spend a whole week together sharing memories,” said Kimmy, who lives in a care center and hopes to be adopted.

Kyler, who was adopted four years ago, agreed.

“Camp has helped us reunite,” he said, adding that he now receives regular phone calls from his sister.

Kimmy said her favorite moment was watching her brother hanging upside down on the ropes course. She said those memories are helpful because they do not live together.

“I will miss my brother, but I’ll see him again,” Kimmy said.

VanGesen and Kennedy, both of whom are mothers of 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 approximately 11,000 children in the state’s foster care system. Nationally, she said 75 percent of children placed in foster care are separated from their siblings.

Even though the staff is unpaid, VanGesen said the camp still costs $85,000 as participants, who do not pay for expenses, travel from places such as Texas.

Kennedy and VanGesen soon will start preparations, which include fundraising, for next year’s camp. She said there were 104 children selected — 99 arrived — among more than 200 applicants.

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