Julian, California - Camp Connect is a four-day bonding experience for siblings who have been placed apart in foster care.
Camp volunteer Maria Araiza kept a diary of her experience at the campground in Julian and provides us with an emotional look at what the camp meant for the foster youth and volunteers.
I arrived at the Camp Connect send-off so excited. I have anticipated this day for months. This was to be my second year participating with summer camp and my role this year is to take pictures at the four days of camp. As the volunteers started to arrive, they shared with pride how many years they had attended summer camp and welcomed new volunteers with stories from previous years.
Kids shared high fives and hugs with volunteers as they saw familiar faces. There was a lot of excitement as they reunited with their brothers and/or sisters. I noticed a boy waiting eagerly for his brother constantly asking, "He said he was coming right?" When he saw his brother from a distance his eyes got wide and a smile filled his face. He tried to be cool, but he could not hold back for very long before greeting him with long hugs and going into everything that happened since they last saw each other. It was beautiful to see everyone come together.
We had the media and even some members from the County Board of Supervisors attend to wish us a good time over the weekend.
Arriving at camp - seeing the mountains and trees - gave me a feeling of freedom being surrounded by nature. All I could think of was how much fun this weekend will be. I met my cabin mates and was pleasantly surprised to know I was sharing cabins with a few of my co-workers and familiar kids.
I was told we were expecting Sally (14 years old) to arrive to camp late. She resides in a residential facility in Northern California and was traveling to San Diego in order to participate in Camp Connect with her brother (15) who is placed in San Diego. I was eating dinner when she arrived, as another social worker had traveled 60 miles to camp after picking her up from the airport.
Sally was very anxious to find her brother. She stood in the back of the cafeteria scanning the room trying to find her brother whom she had not seen in six months. Her expression changed when a young man was walking her direction she smiled and rushed to hug him asking, “Is that you Kyle?” The young man appeared confused with her approach and broke the news that he was not her brother, but that he remembered her from last year’s camp and just wanted to welcome her. My heart sank for Sally. She had not seen her brother in six months and was not able to tell him apart in a cafeteria full of kids. I felt mad and embarrassed for her.
Sally shared that she and her brother are not very close anymore because she lives so far away. When we eventually found her brother that night, he awkwardly greeted her with a pat on the back and told her they would hang out later. Even though it was difficult to see Sally’s arrival this evening there was a sense of relief that even though they had not seen each other in six months, they have four days to catch up and I hoped that in this time they would share experiences that brought them closer even if was just a little bit.
I walked around the camp taking pictures of the kids at the pool, horseback riding, and at the slip-and-slide. It has been a beautiful sunny day. All the kids are settling in, getting to know their group leaders. I had a lot of children asking to be photographed with their siblings.
I walked over to the rock climbing area of the camp and found a group that had already started. In line to go next was Nancy, a 6-year-old girl. She was a little nervous and shared that it was her first time. Her older brother was waiting with her. When she was next she started to go up the wall but did not make it very far up before saying that she was tired and wanted to get down.
Kids that were waiting for their turn started to cheer her on and motivate her. Her big brother started to coach her on what rock to hold on next and continued to encourage her. Nancy soon made it to the top of the wall and rang the bell. Everyone cheered for her and she was wiggling with joy. I noticed even a few volunteers that had been cheering her on had tears in their eyes.
I moved on to the mud pit. I was only there to get a few good pictures, but I was eventually talked into getting in with a young boy and a volunteer. I thought, “Ok, I’ll just put my feet in, no big deal.” A few minutes later it was more than just my feet and we had so much fun. I had to be hosed down by cold water to get the mud off, but then it turned into a hose fight chasing each with the hose. Honestly, the water did not even feel cold as the laughter of the kids made it much warmer. I realized how important it is to turn off the social worker in me and just put my feet in the mud. Once I did, it felt good for me.
During breakfast a volunteer came up to me and asked, “Can you go with us zip lining at 1 p.m.? Kelly is going on the zipline!” She looked so excited. I promised her that I would be there to take pictures. Kelly and her sister are here at Camp Connect for the first time. Kelly is not able to walk and has limited body movement.
Connie, a social worker/volunteer and camp leader, had taken the responsibility of caring for this sibling group for the weekend. A red wagon was purchased for Kelly because her wheelchair could not be effectively navigated through the dirt hills and rocks. I found out that the camp had gotten a special harness for Kelly so that she could participate in ziplining.
I was very excited for Kelly, because even though she has a disability she has the best attitude and she wants to be part of activities just like the other kids. She had also gone to the pool the day before, and was scared to even go in, but after just 15 minutes of being in the water (for the first time EVER) she was already learning how to swim and was in love with the pool. She is an amazing little girl.
As I got to the zip line area, Kelly was in her red wagon and all geared up. She was one of the first ones to go up and appeared excited yet nervous. We all went to an area where we could cheer her on. I was taking as many pictures as I possibly could, I was so excited for her and wanted to document every moment of this experience for her.
As we quieted down from cheering, we heard Kelly’s cry. She was scared. She was brought down and Connie held her and told her it was okay to be scared and that she did not have to zipline. Her sister announced that she was going next and went up the stairs to be assisted by camp staff. She was sitting on the edge almost ready to push off, but she also became too overwhelmed and scared.
She came back down the stairs. We all told her she was brave just for going up there, but one volunteer told her she should do it for her sister. She asked if she could go back up to try again. She meant business this time. She sat on the edge, counted to three and pushed off, and we just saw her fly by.
A rush of emotions over powered me, and I felt warm tears coming down my cheeks. I felt silly for feeling this way and was glad that I had my sunglasses on, but when I looked over at Connie, who was standing next to me, she had tears of joy too. I was so proud of her. She had gotten over her fears and ziplined for her and her little sister.
Tonight we also had the talent show. I was excited because I was going to play a slide show of pictures I had taken during Camp. I knew the kids were going to be excited to see themselves. The talent show was almost two hours. I was amazed to see how talented our kids are but also how they cheered and encouraged each other. It was a great night but it was also settling in that it was almost time to say goodbye. We all returned to our cabins and started to pack. I did not want to pack. I wasn’t ready to go yet, I can’t imagine how the kids felt. This would be the last night they get to spend with their siblings - for some for a whole year until we return to camp. We all stayed up late and enjoyed the moment that was about to end.
Today we said goodbye. As we were taking the luggage down to the bus area I saw a young boy ask a male volunteer if he knew the dates of next year’s camp. The volunteer got on one knee, looked him in the eyes and told him “next month.” He went on to explain that we won’t return here until next year but that he would get to see his sibling in a Camp Connect event next month. The young boy was satisfied with that answer.
As the kids get off the bus all I can think is I’m finally going home to my warm bed. I'm sleep-deprived, sun-burned and sore from every inch of my body. As the kids say goodbye to their siblings and seeing the tears roll down their faces it makes it difficult to hold my own tears with feelings of sadness, but joyful that I was part of this experience. This is where I knew it was all worth it, there was a reason I needed to be here.