When Kayla Hubert entered foster care at age 4, she was separated from her older brother and a few years later, from her sister as well.
By the time she was 8, visits with her siblings were rare. But an opportunity to participate in a newly developed program called Camp To Belong changed everything. The organization, which focuses on sibling connection for foster youth, has reunited more than 10,000 siblings in the last 25 years.
“If it weren’t for camp, we wouldn’t have the bond we have today,” Hubert said. “The memories we made that year are the foundation of our relationship. Without that we would be strangers.”
Camp To Belong’s founder, Lynn Price, had herself been separated from her older sister when she entered foster care as a child. As a volunteer for the local court appointed special advocate (CASA) program, Price was shocked by the number of children who were still being separated from their siblings. That recognition launched her on a life-long mission to advocate for siblings in foster care.
In 1995, Price hosted the first week-long camp for 32 siblings in Nevada’s foster care system. The camp proved to be a profound experience for Price, the volunteers and the campers, launching a 25-year effort to bring separated siblings together for a magical camp experience every year.
By the time Hubert and her siblings attended camp in 1999, Camp To Belong had set up shop in Colorado, where Price and her family had relocated in 1997, and siblings were attending camp from many of the surrounding states.
Hubert and her siblings were part of California’s foster care system and reunited at camp. For her and older brother Randy it was a profound experience that Hubert says has helped them stay connected and build a lasting relationship with each other.
“My brother had just turned 18 and had to get special permission to come to camp,” Hubert said. “It was extra special for me because I didn’t have a relationship with my brother. The day after camp he went off to boot camp for the Marine Corps.”
After that first camp experience, the siblings returned to camp many times over the years, with Randy ultimately becoming a Camp To Belong counselor. They still communicate with each other almost daily and Hubert credits Camp To Belong with helping them create childhood memories together that have led to a life-long bond.
“While we missed out on most of our childhood together, we are best friends today, but we don’t have any childhood memories to back it,” Hubert said.
That is exactly what Price wanted to offer to siblings separated by foster care. Price and her sister Andi had to build their relationship mostly as adults. Price felt if they could connect siblings while they were in care, they could help to create lasting relationships and heal some of the hardness the system often creates.
Camp begins with an emotional reconnection for most of the siblings who attend. For some it has been months and even years since they have been together, for all it’s an opportunity to share everyday sibling experiences.
“The first day is really an emotional rollercoaster,” Price said.
Throughout the week, siblings share everyday moments like eating breakfast, reading a book or laughing together, even having sibling squabbles. But the week is also peppered with more profound moments that are part of Camp To Belong’s signature programs, including a birthday party and creating pillows with special messages for their siblings. The week is filled with fun summertime activities like swimming, hiking and horseback riding.
The birthday party allows siblings who often miss each other’s birthday to celebrate together. They shop for gifts, make birthday cards, open presents and celebrate with cake.
“We have a host of those meaningful activities,” Price said. “At closing we talk about what we’re grateful for and what the week has meant for them.”
Over the years, Camp To Belong has expanded across the country through its member camp program. In 2015, long-time volunteers Rob and Kate Bauer decided to launch a camp in their home state of Wisconsin. A social worker, Rob has been a believer in camp since the first time he participated in 2000.
“It really made me have that realization that these are just kids,” Rob said. “It’s such a privilege to bring the kids together.”
In addition to longtime Camp To Belong programing, the Bauers have added their own camp flare, including a hand carved walking stick they’ve dubbed the Connection Totem. Every child and volunteer has the opportunity to hold the stick and share about their Camp To Belong experience at some point during the camp.
The Bauers have also expanded their program beyond the week-long camp to include other gatherings for siblings throughout the year.
Keeping siblings connected in foster care is a problem that persists in child welfare despite legislative attempts to make it a priority. The Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act, signed into law in 2008, requires states to make reasonable efforts to place siblings removed from their home in the same setting.
For Price, Camp To Belong was more than a feel good project; it was personal. Having been separated from older sister Andi by the system, she knew she could use her Camp To Belong platform to help change child welfare policy and practice as well.
“In 2000, I gave testimony before the Colorado House and Senate; the result was the passage of House Bill 1108 which prevents siblings from being placed separately in foster care and adoptive homes whenever possible,” Price said.
Camp To Belong’s members have advocated for a Foster Care Bill of Rights to be implemented in several states across the country, a document that lays out several liberties for youth in care, including the right to see their siblings.
Watching Price in action at camp and through her advocacy work is something that has inspired campers and volunteers for two decades.
Florida foster care case manager Teresa DeBroux first heard about Price and Camp To Belong in a Family Circle article in 1999.
“It just stuck with me,” DeBroux said, which prompted her to reach out to Price who invited her to attend camp that summer. From the moment DeBroux arrived, Camp To Belong changed her life.
“I remember feeling like I was on an emotional rollercoaster,” DeBroux said. “I will never forget when I stepped on that plane to go home — I just broke down in tears and realized what an impact it had on me.”
DeBroux has volunteered at camp almost every year since 1999, and now is an integral part of Camp To Belong-Georgia. While DeBroux credits Camp To Belong with making her a better case manager and advocate for kids in care, she credits Price for being an inspiration.
“I think about the ‘power of the ripple’ that Lynn talks about,” DeBroux said. “The thousands of lives of campers and counselors are that ripple. Lynn is just incredible to me.”
The Ripple Effect
When Davis Carone entered foster care at 10 years old, he was separated from his older brother Adam and younger brother Trace. The three spent several years separated in Nevada’s foster care system, except for the week they spent at Camp To Belong.
“Being taken away from your mom and not being with your brothers — it was pretty awful that experience,” Carone said. Being reunited at camp allowed the three of them to share everyday experiences and build a bond that continues today.
“You go through an entire year’s worth of emotion in one week,” said Carone. “It was an emotional rollercoaster. I didn’t want to leave camp. I didn’t want to lose my brothers again.”
Now a 23-year-old police officer for the city of San Jose, Carone and his brothers still return to camp yearly.
“Whenever I’m at camp, I’m at home with my family,” said Carone, who is now a member of the organization’s board of directors. “If I didn’t have camp, I’d be a very different person.”
Today, there are 14 member camps spread across the country and some programs have expanded into year-long endeavors, such as the one in Wisconsin that bring kids in foster care together regularly with their siblings. Member camps are their own nonprofit organizations or are operated by other nonprofits.
The organization is planning to add four more member camps to its ranks starting this summer.
Celebrating the Journey
Celebrating 25 years this summer, Camp To Belong is hosting an anniversary gathering September 13-15 at Camp Kentahten in Kentucky.
Price, who now serves as president emeritus, said she’s hoping past campers and counselors will attend to “celebrate how they’ve impacted Camp To Belong and the power of the ripple” created by camp. Longtime counselor DeBroux is helping to plan the event and is already excited about the opportunity to reconnect with so many others who have the same passion she does.
“I’m really looking forward to seeing people I haven’t seen in 15 years,” DeBroux said. “I feel very strong connections with the counselors in the early years. There are so many of them who are like family to me.”
The Bauers plan to attend as well and former campers Hubert and Carone are considering doing the same. For Price, all of the counselors and campers are the ripple she speaks about so frequently.
“We’ve given voice to so many children,” Price said. “All people understand that sibling connection. We understand the collective impact is humongous for the kids and everyone on the journey.”
Price will also release a 25th anniversary edition of her book “Real Belonging, Give Siblings Their Right to Reunite” in May.
Price will be at the reunion, as will her sister who still tries to attend at least one camp with her sister every year.
“It shows them how that relationship matters later in life,” Price said.
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