A Little Faith and a Lot of Sunshine for New Jersey Foster Youth

With the school year winding down, kids are beginning to buzz with excitement about summer plans and vacations. For foster youth, however, summer prospects are often frustratingly more complicated.

Lynn Patmalnee, director of communications and development at Foster and Adoptive Family Services, says that turbulent lives before entering care – and once in the system – force some foster youth to grow up fast.

“If they come from homes where their parents are drug addicted, for instance, they are very often like mini-adults because they become the caretakers for their parents, for their siblings,” Patmalnee said.

However, a little faith and a lot of donations provide opportunities for foster youth to attend summer camp where they get to act their age. Camp scholarships provide outlets for foster youth to engage in memorable summer experiences. These summer camp scholarships are especially important to foster children whose only chance to see their siblings, who are often placed in other homes, is during the summer.

Foster and Adoptive Services, a leading statewide advocacy agency for foster, adoptive and kinship parents, based in central New Jersey, aims to change foster youths’ summer experiences.

The non-profit, founded in 1972, has a long history serving the state’s 7,172 children in foster care, and the organization’s Summer Camp Foster Scholar Program provides an opportunity for foster children in the Garden State to attend a weeklong overnight camp.

“Foster care for these kids is an abnormal situation … what our programs like to do is normalize that experience for the kids as much as possible,” Patmalnee said.

The Summer Camp Foster Scholar Program is for children in foster care up to age 18 and involves a partnership with Camp Johnsonburg in Warren, New Jersey, Patmalnee said.

Program eligibility is based on a child’s placement within the foster care system. Applications for the Summer Camp Foster Scholar Program are collected online, and typically filled out by foster parents.

The program got its start in 2002 when a board member convinced her fellow congregants at a Presbyterian church in Long Valley, New Jersey, to contribute to a summer camp for foster youth.

“Her church gave money to start a camp program, and it has progressed from there,” Patmalnee said.

The first year of the program involved seven children. Today, the program serves about 25 children each summer and has donated over 300 camp scholarships.

The summer camp program is one of the many privately funded foster children’s programs Foster and Adoptive Family Services supports. The camp the children attend, Camp Johnsonburg, donates half of camp tuition with the other half covered by scholarship donations, leaving no cost to foster children and their families.

“The basis of our program is faith-based,” said Robin Garzoni, hospitality director at Camp Johnsonburg. “We aim to build a Christian community and promote living in community together, and the activities go along with it.”

The relationship between Camp Johnsonburg and Foster and Adoptive Family Services has remained strong over the years, enabling the Summer Camp Foster Scholar Program to flourish.

“We have a pretty well-established program working with them because of the interconnectedness through the churches. Some of the local churches help some of the kids pay to come.”

One of the most distinct program options Camp Johnsonburg offers is the “Nightowls” program for older adolescents. At Nightowls, campers stay up engaged in late-night activities, and then get to sleep-in late.

The camp serves all meals family style, in its lakeside dining hall, to encourage a sense of community.

“For all of our children, it develops social and personal skills,” Garzoni said. “And they are all responsible for helping out and cleaning up, and they really learn those life lessons.”

For foster youth who live in inner-cities, their experience at summer camp might be the only time throughout the year they are able to leave the city.

“Thank you for letting me go to camp. I had a good time. I made new friends and I learned new songs. I enjoyed canoeing and swimming in the lake and in the pool,” said eight-year-old and former Camp Johnsonburg attendee Jerry, on Foster and Adoptive Family Services’ website.

Moreover, for some children, Camp Johnsonburg offers the opportunity to reunite with siblings living in separate foster homes.

“For kids who have siblings that maybe live with a different foster family, we have kids who can go to camp to see each other during that time,” Garzoni explained.

At the end of camp, the “campers have a better sense of who they are. They hopefully developed self-confidence and are growing into more of who they are becoming,” she said.

The partnership between Foster and Adoptive Family Services and Camp Johnsonburg enables foster youth across the state to engage in a memorable summer experience.

“Because of camp, they are able to go ahead and face the rest of the year and what’s ahead,” said Garzoni.  “They crave to come back.”

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Devon Ziminski
About Devon Ziminski 23 Articles
Devon is a Journalism for Social Change Fellow. She writes about gun violence, mental health, adoption policy and practice, and education.