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Camp promotes reunion of separated siblings in Maryland

Siblings Markus, left, Jeffrey and Akira, right, live in different homes but spend the week at Camp Connect together.
Siblings Markus, left, Jeffrey and Akira, right, live in different homes but spend the week at Camp Connect together. (Lloyd Fox / Baltimore Sun)

KNOXVILLE, MD. — Thirteen-year-old Jeffrey has enjoyed horseback riding, swimming in the pool and gobbling ice cream with his 7-year-old brother, Markus.

Their sister Akira, 12, has had a blast keeping up her scrapbook and decorating blankets bearing messages of love for her brothers.

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For 51 weeks of the year, the children live in different homes, miles apart from one another, three of the scores of minors in Maryland who are separated from their siblings by the state's foster care system.

But for one week each summer, they have an opportunity to enjoy outdoor activities and other bonding adventures together, through a program administered by the Baltimore County Department of Social Services known as Camp Connect.

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Now in its 17th year, the camp brought 20 sibling groups from eight Maryland counties together this week at Manidokan Camp and Retreat Center, a tree-covered spread that overlooks the Potomac River in southwestern Frederick County.

Organizers say the camp provides the children with the kind of uninterrupted quality interaction that should be a part of all siblings' lives.

Judith Schagrin, an administrator for foster care and adoption services in Baltimore County, says professionals never want to separate siblings, but sometimes biological and foster family considerations leave them no choice.

Schagrin, who serves as unofficial camp director, says the goal is always to reunite families. But until that's possible, Camp Connect aims "to promote sibling bonds that will last far longer than the children's stay in our foster care system."

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Fifty-five campers between the ages of 6 and 18 arrived at the 426-acre retreat on Monday. They're scheduled to depart Sunday morning.

The program, financed by a federal grant and support from the state, is open to children in eight jurisdictions throughout Maryland, including Baltimore and Baltimore, Harford, Prince George's and Frederick counties. The majority of this year's campers hail from Baltimore County.

About 40 volunteer counselors lead the activities. Some are foster care professionals or other social workers; others are camp alumni, who return to share with others the experiences they had.

Jeffrey lives with a foster family in Dundalk. Akira lives in Northeast Baltimore. Markus lives in rural Baltimore County.

Jeffrey, making his third visit to Camp Connect, says he looks forward to the experience every year.

"We see each other on weekends, but it's not for very long," he said. "This is more fun. I get to spend a lot more time with my brother and sister."

Social service officials asked The Baltimore Sun to withhold the children's last names to protect their privacy.

Camp Connect traces its roots to the 1990s, when Baltimore County officials began looking at a program in Colorado that pioneered the concept of bringing together siblings separated in the foster care system.

Between 1997 and 1999, the department sent children and volunteer staff to the private Camp to Belong in Aurora, Colorado, to meet founder Lynn Price.

Price was raised apart from her own sister in foster care. With her help, county officials launched a Maryland version in 2000. The county changed its name to Camp Connect the following year, and it has met every year since — for the first 15 summers at a site in New Freedom, Pa., for the past two at Manidokan.

Schagrin, who has traveled across the country to help set up similar programs, says Maryland is the only state she knows of that helps fund such a camp.

On a steamy late afternoon this week, dozens of campers splashed and shrieked in a swimming pool. Others kicked a soccer ball, or lobbed bean bags in a makeshift cornhole game.

Schagrin, dressed in a t-shirt and water shoes, cheerfully swatted away gnats while giving a visitor a walk-through.

She described the array of experiences the campers enjoy: whitewater rafting on the Potomac, scavenger hunts in nearby Harper's Ferry, W.Va., a makeup-and-hairstyling night for the girls, flag football games for the boys, arts and crafts, and swimming sessions to unwind before dinner.

Because foster siblings who are separated often miss each other's birthdays, counselors also throw a camp-wide birthday bash, with cupcakes, singing and sibling-to-sibling presents.

Evidence of one favorite camp tradition lies across a split-rail fence near the dining area: a dozen or so brightly-colored blankets, each decorated with custom art.

Kozy Kovers for Kids, a Delware nonprofit with a branch in Baltimore County, donated the blankets, and volunteers affixed the white patches on which campers write messages to their siblings.

"You will always be the best little sister a brother could have," reads one in magenta ink. "I will always be by your side no matter the pain we go through."

One sister is less reverent toward her little brother, though the core message is the same.

"I miss you sometimes even though you're weird," she writes. "I still love you lots."

The campers exchange the blankets in a ceremony that Schagrin says always reduces her and other counselors to tears.

If the goal is to leave siblings with lasting memories, Camp Connect has established a winning track record.

Billy Wilson, 23, grew up in a succession of foster homes in Baltimore County. He lived most of his childhood years apart from his brother and two sisters.

He attended his first Camp Connect at 8, returned every year for the next eight years, then became a counselor for six more.

Now a Glen Burnie resident, Wilson works for a car dealership, and couldn't get the week off, so he couldn't serve as a counselor this year.

He still came for a visit, his fiancee, Tiffany Audit, in tow.

Wilson says he has saved every blanket his siblings gave him over the years — they're encased in plastic so the writing won't fade — and savors the memory of every horseback ride, every hike in the woods and every trip to the swimming hole with his siblings.

He brought Audit to Manidokan to meet some of the men and women who made such memories possible.

One of those is Mike "Louie" Shirey, a foster care case manager in his 17th year as a volunteer counselor.

He says most of the kids come from environments where rivers, woods and flying insects are alien objects — which only serves to aid the bonding process.

That's because getting through camp activities requires the kind of interdependence that builds memories.

"I remember when Billy first came here. He was only this high," Shirey says, extending a hand at chest level. "It's such a privilege to be able to watch some of these kids grow up and stay connected to the camp. It gives me chills."

Not that every moment at Camp Connect is familial bliss.

Some of the siblings do get to see each other regularly, if briefly, Schagrin says. Others might not have connected for months.

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Reconnecting can create a day or two of shyness. But when that reticence gives way, the brothers and sisters can squabble and fight "just like regular siblings do," she says. But invariably "they work things out."

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Jeffrey, Akira and Markus know all about that.

Akira has a knack for verbalizing her fondness for her brothers. For the boys, affection can take the form of the occasional tussle.

Jeffrey casts a quick look at the diminutive Markus.

"Usually I sit on him," he says.

The siblings say they want to spend more time together as they grow older, and hope they'll always be close.

Camp Connect, they agree, has bolstered that hope.

In the meantime, they aren't looking forward to Sunday, when they'll climb into a van and return to their usual lives.

"We'd rather stay here," Markus says.

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