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Separated Siblings Belong at This Camp

Children split up by the foster-care system may find four-day refuge of love and stability at a Colorado facility.

September 07, 2003|Rebecca Cook | Associated Press Writer

GYPSUM, Colo. — A little boy with dark circles under his eyes steps off the bus alone, slouching into his first day of summer camp in a faded Harry Potter T-shirt.

As other children hug and chase each other around the lawn, he drifts to the fringe of the crowd, poking a stick into the crevices of a low rock wall.

He's 9 years old, skinny and quiet. His name tag says Devin, but here he'll be called D. J.

It's a nickname that he hasn't heard in a long time.

The "J" stands for his middle name, known only by his family. Years ago, the state took Devin and his sisters away from their abusive parents and put them into separate foster homes. Devin was adopted by a family in Washington state, while his sisters moved several states away with their adoptive mother.

They haven't seen each other in a year. The separation hit Devin hard. On his camp application, his adoptive mom wrote: "His Gameboy is his friend."

But here, Devin will have two real friends: His sisters are also at Camp to Belong.

Camp to Belong reunites siblings who have been separated in the foster-care system, giving them a chance to play, laugh and even bicker like brothers and sisters again.

It lasts four days -- not long enough to heal the damage done by what, for some campers, has been a lifetime of hurt and disappointment. But the camp's founder believes that siblings provide a refuge of love and stability for foster kids who live in a world where both can be cruelly scarce.

On this first night, some brothers and sisters cling to each other like long-lost soul mates. Others sit together awkwardly like strangers on a bus, stealing glances when they think that the other isn't looking.

At a campfire, director and founder Lynn Price welcomes everyone. The campers murmur in surprise when Price outs herself as a former foster child. She and her sister, Andi Andree, were separated as children and didn't become close until they were adults.

"We want to give you what we never had," Price says.

But for now, it's time to sleep. Kids scramble to find their counselors.

"West Mountain, over here!" bellows the counselor for the youngest boys' cabin.

Devin leaps up, nervously clutching his flashlight. His guided tour departs through the dark.

But a moment later, he runs back to his sisters, still standing by the fire.

Silently, Devin hugs them goodnight. Then he turns to leave, his lone flashlight wavering in the darkness.

*

Mist rises the next morning from the pasture that separates the boys' cabins from the rustic dining hall. Girls reach the hall by a rocky trail up from Sweetwater Creek.

At breakfast, kids take in the new faces, including their own siblings'.

There's 18-year-old Robert from Oklahoma, with his baggy clothes and braided hair. He amazes his sisters on the second night of camp by telling them, in front of everyone, how much he loves them.

There's 10-year-old Glen from Colorado Springs, his blond hair sticking in every direction. When he and his constantly bickering older brother and sister share birthday cupcakes on the third night of camp, he licks the candles clean and saves them to take home.

And then there are 12-year-old Chloe and Devin, who look alike, with round cheeks and button noses. Sharee, 10, shares Devin's dreamy nature. All three have a sprinkling of freckles over their noses.

They also share a series of pale scars where their biological parents burned them with cigarettes. The state took them away from their parents six years ago.

Devin and Sharee don't know why they went to different foster homes. Chloe believes that it was because the three of them get "really wild" together.

(Chloe and Sharee are middle names the girls chose for themselves when they were adopted; their mother asked that their first names not be used because she worries that the girls' biological parents might try to track them down. All three children's surnames are being withheld to protect their privacy.)

After breakfast, they head to the swimming pool, a spot of rich blue cradled in the dusty foothills like a robin's egg in its nest.

Chloe and Sharee jump right in, while D. J. hesitantly dips in a toe. "I need a life jacket," he mumbles.

His mop of brown hair barely visible above the puffy orange life jacket, Devin steps into the pool. In the shallow end, Chloe encourages him to swim.

"Go D. J.! Go D. J.!" she cheers, walking backward as Devin paddles toward her.

Taking care of Devin comes naturally to Chloe. In their chaotic home, she took on the role of responsible adult. People who work with foster kids call this parentification. After several years with a mother of her own, Chloe has relaxed into a bossy big sister with Sharee. Devin still brings out the mom in her, though.

Minutes later, Chloe hops out of the pool and returns to the edge with her own life jacket.

"Look, Deej!" she shouts, and then jumps, cannonball-style, into the deep end. She does it again, splashing Devin.

He looks at her, then edges up the side of the pool to the 4-foot mark, where he does his own cannonball.

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