WATERFORD, Maine — Summer sleep-away camp. For most kids, the words conjure up images of splashing swim sessions, pine-scented nature study, raucous dining hall antics, and giggly lights-out in rustic cabins.
For the 30 or so Maine youngsters who attend Camp To Belong each year, the camp experience means all that and much, much more. The weeklong program, hosted each August at Camp Wigwam in Oxford County, reunites siblings who have been separated by Maine’s foster care system.
Camp To Belong is an international nonprofit organization. Founded in 1995, it hosts summer camp programs in seven U.S. states and Australia. The cost is covered by private donations and, in Maine, by the state Department of Health and Human Services. Many staff members serve on a volunteer basis, and many come back year after year to provide support and guidance to this special population of youngsters who face serious challenges as they transition into adulthood.
“When we first came in 2005, we hadn’t seen each other for three years,” said 17-year-old Abbey Quill, who attended again this year with her 15-year-old brother Duncan Dyer. Abbey and Duncan, along with their other sister, Cyndy, were removed from the care of their natural parents about 10 years ago and have not lived under the same roof since. Each of them has transitioned through numerous foster care placements.
Abbey currently lives with a family in the Aroostook County town of Oakfield. Duncan is living in Rockport. Cyndy lives in Bar Harbor and has attended camp in the past but couldn’t come this year. They stay in touch with occasional email messages and phone calls. They have spent a few Christmases together, but face-to-face visits take a lot of arranging, and the years fly past.
“Without this program, we would never see each other,” Abbey said.
Children who attend Camp To Belong are assigned to a small “family group” consisting of other siblings groups and a cadre of adult volunteer counselors. As a group, they take part in all the traditional summer camp experiences, from the ceremonial flag-raising each morning to flash-lit storytelling in their sleeping bags at night.
The goal is to provide as typical a camp experience as possible, according to camp director Heidi Krieger. There are no planned therapy sessions or special bonding exercises — just a fun and busy schedule, with siblings like Abbey and Duncan encouraged to interact closely with each other and within their family groups.
Still, Krieger said, “some of these reunions are very emotional and dramatic.” Most campers are coping with the long-term effects of abuse, neglect and permanent separation from their parents, she said. A fragile connection to a brother or sister may be all that is left of their sense of belonging in the world.
“A lot of behaviors that come out here have to do with really deep feelings of hurt and fear about not being able to see their siblings again,” she said.
The brothers and sisters in Family Group One
In addition to Abbey and Duncan, there were three other sibling groups in Family Group One at last month’s session.
13-year-old Kevin Brown lives in Standish. Taken into state custody at age 5, he was adopted two years ago, after weathering about a dozen temporary placements. His brother Ken St. Peter is 16 and lives with a foster family in Augusta.
“I see him every three months or so,” Kevin said, glancing at his older brother, who preferred not to be interviewed. The brothers have their arguments, even at camp.
“It’s just like it was before, except we’re a lot older now, and we’re having fun,” he said.
Faith Welch, 15, lives in Saco and her brother Simeon Welch, 17, lives in Chelsea. This is their fourth summer at Camp To Belong. They seem overjoyed to be spending time together, and can be found by following the sound of their laughter.
Jasmine Coulter, 17, lives in Holden and her 16-year-old brother, Kyle Cummings, lives in Augusta.
“We see each other three or four times a year,” Jasmine said. Spending time at camp together gives them a chance to strengthen their evident bond and helps them develop other social connections as well.
“We get time for just me and Kyle,” Jasmine said. “But we have a lot of other friends here, too. It’s like a big family.”
And, as in a family, tensions erupt. Halfway through the session, Camp To Belong features a special carnival night, complete with barbecue and cotton candy, midway games, karaoke and a dunk tank. The kids are having a fine time, when suddenly a fight breaks out. One of the boys in Family Group One punches a younger child from another group, then strides away in a fury. When another youngster comes after him, he whirls around and socks the smaller boy on the chin, knocking him to the ground. Camp staff come running. The injured children are quickly provided with comfort and ice. The angry perpetrator is taken off for some time out and a consultation.
Later, Krieger says the youngster who lost control and hit the younger campers was acting out of a potent mix of emotions, including a deep-rooted fear of abandonment after hearing his sister discuss her dream of pursuing a life of Christian service.
“Ultimately, he was upset about her decision to become a missionary; he felt she was choosing that over him,” Krieger said.
The children at Camp To Belong face numerous challenges, Krieger said.
Unlike most youngsters from functional families, children in state custody often don’t develop a sense of self-determination or learn to take responsibility for their actions, she said. Trust in others is a huge issue.
“From the time they first go in to foster care, they feel such a loss of control over their lives,” she said. “They could go to school in the morning and get picked up in the afternoon by a caseworker and be told nothing except ‘You’re going to another foster home.’ It happens all the time.”
They also often experience a profound sense of loss at being separated from their parents and their extended families, as well as from their siblings.
Camp To Belong, Krieger said, aims to help them develop strong lifetime relationships with their brothers and sisters, who understand perhaps better than anyone else the underlying trauma of growing up in the foster care system.