There are about a half million children in foster care in this country and about 75 percent of them are separated from at least one of their siblings.
That void is filled with a little-known summer experience known as Camp To Belong — a place where brothers and sisters can reconnect and create bonds that will last them a lifetime.
The international organization has reunited more than 3,500 siblings over the 16 years of its existence.
Washington state is fortunate to be one of just a handful of states with a Camp To Belong program in place to serve the 9,500 children in the state’s foster care system. Also eligible to attend are children who are adopted and children living with relatives. The goal is to reunite youngsters separated from their siblings.
The camp was founded by Lynn Price, a foster child who discovered at age 8 that she had a sister. Their visits were minimal as youngsters and it wasn’t until adulthood that they forged a strong sibling relationship.
Price wanted desperately to create an experience where siblings who could no longer live with their families of origin, could interact with caring volunteer counselors and other kids with shared experiences. Price envisioned a place where the campers’ days would be filled with fun and meaningful activities giving siblings the opportunity to experience new things together — horseback riding, rafting, swimming and wall climbing.
The mission was to give separated youngsters a foundation upon which they could build life-long relationships with their siblings. The nonprofit relies solely on donations from individuals, businesses, corporations and grants.
Camp To Belong Washington was created in 2009 through a collaborative effort and partnership among Foster Family Connections, the state division of Children’s Administration and Camp To Belong NW. Children’s Administration provided a bulk of the funding as it has since 2006, when campers from Washington joined with Oregon in their camp. Since then about 250 Washington brothers and sisters have reconnected at camp.
Last August, Washington was one of seven states hosting a summer camp that drew 100 siblings to the Miracle Ranch in Port Orchard. It was the largest gathering in the United States.
As counselor and former counselor Andrew said, “Camp To Belong has been a life-changing experience for me. Miracles happen here.”
Camp counselors say that listening to the campfire stories of the campers is an incredibly moving experience, as brothers and sisters rediscover their love for one another and share a bonding experience that can see them through the difficult days ahead — days filled with the anxiety and heartbreak of separation from other family members.
A sample of testimonials from campers:
“I want to say thanks from the bottom of my heart for providing the opportunity for me and my brother Bryce to be able to spend valuable time together. For providing the opportunity for our sibling bond to seal, never to be broken again. I can say this: I am proud to be a part of the Camp To Belong family. You saved one more sibling bond. You are a hero,” said camper Griffin.
You have to chuckle at the honesty of Marquis who said, “I liked eating, hiking, playing and climbing with my brother. We ate together, played together and fought together. I had a very good time.”
Camper Anthony came from California to see his Spokane siblings. On the last night of camp he said, “If I could have just one gift whether it was for Christmas or my birthday — just one gift — it would be to come back to Camp To Belong.”
An Oregon camper in 2009 stood before others gathered around the campfire and brought everyone to tears when he said, “If I had the choice of spending a year in Hawaii or 45 seconds with my brother, I would choose my brother.”
Then there was Brianna who said simply, “I didn’t know until today that both of my brothers can swim.”
From simple realizations that both brothers can swim to sibling squabbling to memories that will last a lifetime, it’s clear that Camp To Belong creates strong bonds between youngsters who find great joy in sharing just a few days with their estranged siblings.
It can, as camper Griffin said, create a bond that can never be broken.