Monday, September 29, 2014

Saying "see ya later" to Camp To Belong 2014

Our last campfire gathering has become a sacred place for many of our campers. In some ways, it’s a reminder that camp is ending and it’s time to say “see you later” to the many friends our campers made during the week. Connections between our camp counselors and our campers have developed and you’ll hear many kids refer to counselors and fellow campers as “new family members”. But what makes it really difficult for many of our campers, that other campers don’t experience, is the heart-breaking difficulty of saying “see you later” to their brothers and sisters.

As the Director, I find the task of supporting campers through this to be emotionally difficult, and one of the hardest things I endure during this process. There is no easy way to make light of this goodbye or to not acknowledge the life choices that caused the separation in the first place. 

I tell campers that decisions have been made, some we have control over and some we don’t. The only thing we can do is to move forward and treasure the time and memories that were formed at camp. I often found myself telling campers who are struggling to allow themselves to have a good time. Despite the trials they face (which are unimaginable for many of them), they have permission for just one week in their lives to let things go. If they don’t let it go and have peace during the week, they are going to miss out on the opportunity to build many valuable connections and lasting memories.

And in some ways, many of them are experiencing disappointment and sadness with a group of 50 plus people that care for them, and will support them through this process. Something they may have never experienced before. That is just another hidden gift our program offers to all brothers and sisters. 

Here at Sibling Connections we created a year-round program, called Sibling Sundays, which is located in four different areas around the state. Sibling Sundays keeps most of our siblings connected year-round which our brothers and sisters find extremely valuable. One Sunday a month for three hours siblings are able to participate in “normal” childhood activities such as pumpkin picking, sledding, art classes, roller skating, and bowling. Sibling Sundays grew out of our desire to provide a yearlong connection for our campers. It’s a vehicle we are able to offer to families and social workers that need support in maintaining sibling connections.Click here to learn more about Sibling Sundays and how you can get involved. 

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Banana Boats, Color Wars, & A Talent Show!

Yesterday Executive Director Kelley Lane had the opportunity to ride on a new banana boat which was kindly donated by two amazing camp volunteers. They love the banana boat because it allows sibling groups up to five to enjoy the activity together. Along with Kelley a sibling group of four decided to sing, "go bananas, go go bananas, peel bananas, peel peel bananas" while riding the banana boat. The driver decided to make a sharp turn while their hands were waving in the air and they all fell into the water!! They couldn't stop laughing after falling and it was even more humorous helping one another to get back on. These are priceless memories that our kids will never forget. Camp allows them to break from any chaos and instability in their life, and offers moments of childhood fun and laughter. After that wonderful moment Kelley said, "I am so grateful to be part of this organization and to be part of our siblings memories."

Yesterday morning began with fun camp activities and later ended with our camp-wide color wars. Our big momma and big daddy (head counselors) morphed into Dark Vader and Princess Leia and brought lots of excitement to the activities! The idea behind color wars that we shared with campers was that Dark Vader had invaded Camp To Belong MA and Princess Leia requested their help to save Camp To Belong MA. All color groups joined forces by participating in field camps, such as tug of war, to defeat Dark Vader. Campers created their own color group chants, decorated themselves with war paint and clothing and created a long color war banner with their hopes and dreams.

During the afternoon they held their annual William Egan Talent Show, named after a long time volunteer's father-in law. It was one of their best shows yet! As you can imagine, they heard many Frozen scores sung by talented young sisters. The camps talent shows are a favorite for Kelley because most campers feel safe enough to take a risk and perform in front of their peers. No matter the level of talent or gusto, everyone receives a standing ovation. Everyone and every talent matters.

The night ended with an interactive performance with Pizarts, a nonprofit dance troop dedicated to expanding youths knowledge and experience of various dance styles. They performed a range of dances and encouraged campers to participate in performances with them. More pictures to follow tomorrow!

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Camp To Belong: Never Break A Family Chain

Five years ago our Sibling Connections Executive Director, Kelley Lane sat one on one with an 11 year old sibling named Scott at his summer school program. As she introduced herself Scott quickly made it known that he wasn't attending camp that summer. Kelley, while disappointed, reassured him that attending camp was his choice and that no one would force him to go. She made a plan with Scott to check in with him after he viewed the camp video and heard more about Camp To Belong. A few weeks later Kelley recieved a call from his foster parent informing her that he decided to attend camp that summer. On the last day of camp he quietly approached her and asked if he could come back. Of course she told him, he was always welcome.

And now five years later Scott is still attending camp, and he loves every minute of it. This week he began to talk with Kelley about his love of poetry. She handed him a notebook and asked if he could create a group of poems for Sibling Connections. Right away he handed her his first poem:

(A wise woman once told me)...
"Never Break a Family Chain"
Because once you do it might not come back to you.

Here at Sibling Connections we hold onto the idea that sibling relationships for kids in foster care is one of the most important relationships in their lives and is often the longest relationships they will have. We have the opportunity to preserve these essential relationships and provide support to brothers and sisters.

Yesterday campers spent their day rotating through many of their daily activities such as archery, arts and crafts, ceramics, banana boats, swimming, and horseback riding. This summer we added Karate, which was generously donated by Foster Kids of the Merrimack Valley. Larry and Eileen Giordano, President and Vice President, traveled to camp to spend three days teaching our campers Karate. We are excited for this new partnership and are extremely grateful for their dedication and committment to helping siblings in foster care.

Here at Camp To Belong MA we break our kids up into six family groups which we identify by different colors. There's pink, purple, blue, green, orange, and red. There was much family group color spirit in the air! And yesterday everyone prepared for our first ever Camp To Belong color wars!! Pictures to come soon!!!

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Celebrate Good Times! Camp To Belong MA Campwide Birthday Party!

Last night we welcomed the Rise Above Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to providing enriching activities, opportunities and experiences for Massachusetts children in foster care to camp and introduced them to our Youth Leadership campers. Rise Above generously took our 15 Youth Leadership campers and many Sibling Connections volunteers to a beautiful and delicious dinner at Church Cafe in Lenox, MA. The goal of the dinner was to convey to our older campers in foster care that they have a support system, that they aren't alone and that they are appreciated. We acknowledge that foster care can sometimes prevent them from being "normal" teenagers and Rise Above wants them to know that regardless of their circumstances they are rock-stars and true HEROES. Their founder, Wade Sulzman is a current Department of Children and Families worker and has a tremendously big heart. 

Kids in foster care often don't have the opportunity to celebrate their birthdays with their siblings. At Camp To Belong MA everyone has two birthdays. How great is that?! If you think back to your childhood and your birthday celebrations, many of you can remember that favorite gift, or that homemade cake your mom or dad worked so hard to prepare you. Our kids don't have many of these memories, but our hope is to create special birthday memories so they can look back and remember the joy and excitement of celebrating their day with their brother or sister.

After a long day and night of waiting, campers were finally able to exchange the gifts they had picked out for one another during arrival day. The theater house was decorated with happy birthday banners and many balloons. Counselors and campers arrived in many different fashionable attires - some as bears and some with beautiful dresses they saved for the birthday celebration. After gifts were opened, campers and counselors created a long congo line and danced around the room to Pharell's hit song "happy."

Another fun activity that many of our kids have been enjoying is collecting the many frogs and insects that live at Camp To Belong. Just this morning, an eight year old brother was eager to show me his two new friends, "nettie and kettie", two adorable caterpillars. We are thrilled that camp not only gives campers the opportunity to see their siblings, but also the space to explore nature and just be kids. 

Monday, August 25, 2014

The Campers Are Here!!!

After two exciting days of training, our counselors were ready with smiles and signs welcoming 100 campers to camp!

Counselors waiting for campers!

Part of the first day at Camp To Belong MA included a very full and bustling birthday store. Our shelves and tables were lined with ninja turtles, lego kits, stuffed animals, jewelry, hello kitty pillows, and much more. It was exciting to see a younger sister attempt to peek into the camp store to see what her older sister was picking out for her. It has been at least two years since these two sisters had spent a week together. Another brother shared that he had never made a card before and didn't like to make them for people. Our staff encouraged him to try new things this week at camp and that maybe a card from him to his sister would be something she'd treasure. A few minutes later he walked by and showed staff an envelope addressed to his sister, and inside there was a card that said "happy birthday from your brother". He took a risk and tried something new and we couldn't have been more proud at his willingness to be creative and write a card for his sister. Making connections and encouraging and supporting kids...that's what we do here at Sibling Connections.

During campers first dinner together, returning sibling groups were leading some favorite camp songs such as "we got spirit, yes we do, we got spirit how about you?" and "did some body say banana?" The dinner was full of excitement as returning campers turned up the energy in the dining hall, though it didn't take long for new campers to join in the fun! We love seeing our traditions being passed between returning and new campers, and it's the simple things, such as eating meals together, that became the most treasured memories for our campers.

A tradition at Camp To Belong MA includes beginning and ending the week with a campfire. First day campfires can be very emotional or sometimes they can be short and sweet. Last night it was obvious campers were tired from all the day's activities, however, many siblings had the courage to stand up and share their hopes and dreams for the week. Below are some highlights:
  • A young sister, age 8, shared that she had been waiting months to see her older brother, and couldn't believe she could spend an entire week with him.
  • A set of older teen sisters, embraced, and openly shared how much loved they shared for one another.
  • A younger sister stood and shared that she hoped her brother would have a "good week at camp."
Counselor fairies preparing to deliver cookies & milk!
And what's better than cookies and milk before bed? Last night campers got to indulge in a new Camp To Belong tradition: warm cookies and milk before bed delivered by counselors. We tell our campers that the fairy only comes and delivers bedtime treats when they are all ready for bed. Last night was a success and a new tradition that we hope will carry on.

Friday, August 22, 2014

A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words

As we look back on photos of our campers and staff we are full of gratitude and hope. We are able to provide a safe nurturing environment for siblings to reunify and connect. For six days they are able to eat meals together, share stories together and make life-long memories.

In just two more days we honor these sibling connections and are looking forward to welcoming our campers with open arms.

Preparing for Camp to Belong 2014!

Excitement is in the air! In just two days 100 brothers and sisters from across Massachusetts will make their way to the Berkshires and meet 70+ volunteers for a week of reunification and fun activities. We are so appreciative for our volunteers who are making the journey from all across the country – Florida, New Jersey, and even Quebec – to spend the week alongside campers who are separated by foster care. They will be welcoming campers with signs and enthusiasm Sunday afternoon and will kick-off the week with a celebratory campfire Sunday evening.

Staff will arrive to Camp to Belong on Friday for a two day training in preparation for the arrival of the campers. Because we know some of our campers may not have access to belongings necessary for camp, they will have the opportunity to receive their own sleeping bags, flashlights, and beach towels at camp that they are able to keep. They’ll also have access to gifts, gift-cards and various birthday presents. Birthday presents you ask? Most of our campers are unable to spend their birthdays with their siblings, so on Monday a camp-wide birthday party celebration will take over camp and every single camper will leave with a special birthday present. For most kids, this is their only opportunity to see their sibling – and we want to ensure they are able to enjoy it to the fullest.

Executive Director Kelley Lane, her family and a volunteer packing up for Camp to Belong!

What will kids experience during the week? In addition to a camp wide birthday party, they’ll welcome the Pizarts troop, a phenomenal group of dancers from New York who will be teaching kids (and staff!) various dance styles like world dance and hip hop! In their own version of “America’s Got Talent” campers will have the opportunity to participate in a talent show on Wednesday. Thanks to Ahni & Zoe on Thursday every single camper will be able to build a special scrapbook full of photos and memories from the week they they’ll take home. And that’s not all….there will be banana boat rides, pillowmaking, horseback riding, karate and much more!  

Our older youth, between the ages of 15-20 are also invited to camp to join in our Youth Leadership Program (YLP) where they’ll spend time developing leadership skills by participating as counselors in training. We are excited to have YLP at camp through partnering with H.E.R.O.E.S and Rise Above.

We can’t wait to see the buses pull up and to see siblings embrace on Sunday. We wouldn't be able to offer this transformative opportunity for our campers without the generosity of our volunteers, staff, sponsors, and donors. Your support is critical to the success of Camp to Belong and various sibling events throughout the year. We thank you.

We hope you’ll check back throughout the week to see what our campers are up too!