August 11, 2013

Bill Nemitz: Camp gives siblings way to reunite

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But's he's welcomed enough of these youngsters over the past decade -- they always show up a little withdrawn, as if waiting for it all to be suddenly snatched away -- to know how foreign something so simple as a week in the woods is to many of them.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


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