Port Orchard summer camp reunites siblings in foster care
PORT ORCHARD, Wash. -- On rural Horseshoe Lake in Port Orchard nearly 100 kids, spanning from elementary age to teenagers, jumped into the chilly water Thursday afternoon squealing and shouting.
The scene looked like any other idyllic summer camp day – with kids in shorts running around and rows of bunkhouses and horses among tucked among the trees. But Camp to Belong, a week-long sleepover camp, has a unique mission - reuniting siblings living apart in foster care.
“A lot of times these kids go through life bouncing from home to home and living in different places and don’t have a constant person in their life,” said Jen Maitland, Executive Director of Camp to Belong. “The siblings are the people who are going to be in your life for the longest.”
At Camp to Belong sites – there are 10 in the United States and a handful in Australia – siblings ranging from eight to 18 spend nearly every waking moment together. Siblings of the same gender bunk together, said Maitland.
Sisters Lizzie, 14, and Carole, 13, said that without the camp they would never talk, email or text.
“It’s hard," said Lizzie. "Like, I mean I have seven other siblings and I don’t get to see them either."
Lizzie said she lives in Yelm with her grandparents; Carole in Idaho with her mother.
After several years of going to Camp to Belong together, Carole and Lizzie have adapted a routine. They first take in the little things – noticing if the other has gotten taller – then they talk about school and their lives. Lizzie then, normally, claims the top bunk – Carole said she doesn’t ever want it.
Carole, who is home-schooled, said she wishes she could see her big sister every day.
“She would drive me insane, but every day would be awesome,” Carole said.
Triplets Richard, Violet and Jasmine, who are all 9, were dressed in matching blue T-shirts at camp Thursday.
While the three all live in Port Orchard, only the girls live together. Richard, who boasts he’s the eldest of the triplets, said they see each other at church on Sundays.
Like Lizzie and Carole, they too eagerly await summer camp all year long.
“It makes it better definitely to know there are people that know what you’re going through,” Richard said.
Camp to Belong staff asked KOMO to not use the last names of the campers.
Since the first Port Orchard Camp to Belong started in 2009 nearly 800 foster children have attended, according to staff. The Department of Social and Health Services, as well as donations, pay for campers’ tuition.
Maitland said the volunteer staff at the camp do their best to make the siblings feel like they haven’t missed special moments in each others’ lives. They hold a camp-wide birthday party one night – with balloons, individual cakes and presents. They also host a formal dinner and dance, with campers getting their pick of new dresses, shoes and shirts that they can take home with them.
“We just want to give these campers a week to come and just be kids,” Maitland said.