Last week, children and teens who live apart from their brothers and sisters were reunited with their siblings at Camp to Belong. Now in its 10th year in Washington state, the camp took place June 25-30 at Miracle Ranch in Port Orchard and is hosted by the Department of Social and Health Services’ (DSHS) Children’s Administration in partnership with Foster Family Connections and Camp to Belong WA.
Most of the roughly 100 campers, who travel to Kitsap County for a weeklong opportunity to make lifelong memories, are currently or have been in foster care. They live in Washington, with a few traveling in from out of state, and they all live apart from their siblings. About half the campers have previously attended Camp to Belong WA and will serve as mentors to those kids who are first-time attendees.
“Children in foster care often are separated from their siblings. They deserve an opportunity to spend time with their brothers and sisters, and Camp to Belong helps make that happen,” said Meri Waterhouse, caregiver recruitment and retention program manager. “Kids attending Camp to Belong cherish the week they have with their brother or sister, and they pack magical memories into each one of those moments and activities they share.”
More than 45 full-time counselors are on staff at Camp to Belong WA, several of whom also were campers in years past. Some DSHS staff members comprise the 150-plus volunteers who use a week’s vacation to serve as counselors or special event helpers. Camp to Belong WA also works with local community service and nonprofit organizations to raise funds throughout the year.
“We have been so proud to be involved from the beginning because this is such an incredible opportunity to make a difference in the lives of the kids,” said April VanGesen, co-director of Camp to Belong WA and Foster Family Connections. Together with Deb Kennedy, VanGesen has worked year-round since 2009 to make this dream a reality for the kids, some of whom say they look forward to “more than Christmas.”
“Not only do campers get traditional camp activities like games and hikes and bonfires, they get time that most of us take for granted to make memories with their siblings,” explained VanGesen. “To be able to do this for these kids is such a great mission.”
Campers spend a full week making up for lost pillow fights and other adventures, and one night of camp features a birthday party and campfire where kids commemorate the special moments that took place since they last saw each other.
DSHS also works closely with local partners to provide scholarships for youth and assists with support and logistics needed to get campers who are under guardianship in neighboring states, with tribes or other authorities, or who have special needs, to Camp to Belong WA.
At any given time, more than 9,200 children are in foster care in Washington state, and the number of siblings separated while in foster care averages 75 percent nationwide. Children’s Administration, which leaves DSHS and joined the newly formed Department of Children, Youth, and Families on July 1, works diligently with its partners to meet the great need for licensed foster homes that welcome siblings, and is very proud of the important role played by Camp to Belong WA, its staff and its supporters.
To learn more about Camp to Belong, visit https://www.camptobelongwa.org/. To learn more about becoming a foster parent, visit www.dshs.wa.gov/fosterparents.