August 11, 2013

Bill Nemitz: Camp gives siblings way to reunite

They're scattered all over Maine right now, 29 kids on the cusp of a dream come true.

"There's just something about the magic of being in the outdoors, getting to be kids and forgetting your troubles," said Heidi Krieger last week. "Camp Wigwam has a certain magic to it. It's something you feel the moment you drive through the gates."

No argument there. Despite the steady rain, a visit to the boys' camp on Bear Pond in Waterford on Friday revealed the tennis courts, archery range, batting cage, outdoor theater, rock wall and all the other trappings that have filled this heaven-on-earth with children of privilege since it first opened way back in 1910.

But this isn't about Camp Wigwam's seven-week program for kids from as far away as France, Spain and the United Arab Emirates.

This is about Camp Wigwam's Camp to Belong Maine, which next week will open its arms to a distinctly different group of children: Maine foster kids who have been separated from their siblings and, if only for six blissful days in mid-August, get to remember what real family feels like.

"We're definitely not a therapy camp -- that's one thing I stress," said Krieger, who has served as Camp To Belong Maine's director since it began in 2004. "Although a lot of healing happens here."

It started by happenstance: Jennie Hinkley, a former foster child in Farmington, tuned into "The Oprah Winfrey Show" one day back in 2001 to see Lynn Price, who grew up in Chicago's foster care system, receiving an award for founding the first Camp To Belong for separated siblings in Colorado.

As Hinkley, by then a member of Maine's Youth Leadership Advisory Team, recalled at the time, "It's neat whenever you see your story is not the only story like that."

Indeed. Two years of nonstop planning and fundraising followed and the rest is a priceless slice of Maine summer camp history.

Since the first campers arrived nine years ago this month, Camp To Belong Maine has hosted more than 350 foster siblings between the ages of 8 and 18 -- all with the full blessing and $500-per-child financial support of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services.

"While we make every effort to place siblings who enter foster care together, it is not always possible," said Therese Cahill-Low, director of the Office of Child and Family Services, in an email last week. "We strongly believe this camp provides a unique and special experience to children who cannot be placed in one foster setting."

It costs just over $1,000 per child to put on the camp -- what isn't covered by the state is raised through grants and donations.

Camp Wigwam, having been at this for more than a century, provides the basics: medical staff, food service, activities counselors and a driver for the ski boat.

"That would be me," said Bob Strauss, who along with his wife, Jane, has owned and operated Camp Wigwam since 1977. (It's been in the Strauss family since 1964.)

Overnight supervision, meanwhile, comes from Camp To Belong volunteers as far away as Minnesota. They will gather for three days of on-site training next weekend before the campers check in a week from Monday -- a tacit acknowledgement that these boys and girls show up with more than their share of baggage.

"Certainly there are some challenges," said Krieger, who last week completed her personal, pre-camp visits with each and every child. "That's why we have a 2-to-1 camper-to-staff ratio. We really want to be able to support these kids and whatever they may bring to camp."

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