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."

Consider, for example, the child who blew the whistle on abuse by a biological parent and thus triggered the state's intervention with the family in the first place. While the outside world might applaud such courage, a fellow sibling caught up in the ensuing maelstrom might not view it so kindly.

Or what about the child who remains with Mom and Dad while others have been removed from the home? Can that be easily reconciled over a roasted marshmallow?

Then there are the older kids who, as Krieger put it, spent way too much time pre-separation "serving as parental figures and taking care of their younger siblings." How does one tactfully steer them back toward their own lost childhoods?

"We simply encourage them to be kids," said Krieger. "Let us be the adults."

It's not a hard sell.

The standard camp stuff -- swimming, wall climbing, water skiing, tubing, canoeing, kayaking, hiking, theater -- fills only part of the daily routine. Equally important are activities designed to plug holes unique to these young lives.

There's the "sibling pillow" -- a travel-size pillow each camper embroiders with a heartfelt, sibling-to-sibling message that fast becomes more lifelong keepsake than simple souvenir.

There's the disposable camera that each kid gets at the beginning of the week to replace all of those family photos lost over the years or, worse yet, never taken in the first place.

There's Carnival Night with cotton candy, snow cones and fried dough. And Theme Night, which might be a '50s sock hop, a Western hoedown or a Hawaiian luau.

And then there's the Birthday Party.

To make up for all those birthdays missed, each camper "shops" for free among an array of donated gifts for his or her sibling. The present comes topped off with a handmade card, sure to be taken out for a second look when the real birthday rolls around.

Strauss, who will follow Camp To Belong with yet another week for children with disabilities from the Chicago area (he's been doing that one for more than 30 years), said this is at best a "not-for-profit" add-on to Camp Wigwam's busy summer season.

But's he's welcomed enough of these youngsters over the past decade -- they always show up a little withdrawn, as if waiting for it all to be suddenly snatched away -- to know how foreign something so simple as a week in the woods is to many of them.

And he's seen enough tearful farewells -- often until next year -- to know that these kids who thought they'd been forgotten "take the joy of this experience with them for the rest of their lives."

Want to help?

Go to camptobelongmaine.org and click on either "donate" or, better yet, "become a volunteer."

"You can give your money to various causes," noted Strauss. "But the people who can give to this truly see the results right here. It's a stupendous program."

And no kids in the world deserve it more.

Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:

bnemitz@pressherald.com

 

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