Special summer camp reunites brothers, sisters split apart by foster care

Posted: Sunday, August 24, 2003

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 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 at Camp To Belong too.

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 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 the other isn't looking.

At a campfire, director and founder Lynn Price welcomes everyone. The campers murmur in surprise when Lynn 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 good-night. Then he turns to leave, his lone flashlight wavering in the darkness.

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 thinks it was because the three of them get ''really wild'' together.

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.

It's a timid Devin who leaps in but a grinning D.J. who bobs back up, shaking off water like a happy otter. He turns to Chloe with a wide, see-what-I-did smile. She smiles back with sisterly pride.

On the third day of camp, the hot air smells of sage. The sun warms Sharee's shoulders as she watches Chloe and D.J. paddle kayaks.

Sharee smiles. One thing she likes about camp, she says, is that now she knows her brother really likes her.

How does she know? It's the little things he does.

''Like if I say, 'Can you please pass the butter,' he'll pass it down to me,'' Sharee explains. ''And one time, I was going to get butter and he said, 'Let me get it for you.'''

After lunch that day, D.J. teaches everyone a trick.

''Put your hand down like this,'' he says, laying his hand flat on the table. Turn down these two fingers, he says, pointing to the middle and fourth fingers. ''Now hold your hand up,'' he commands his audience, who hold up the American sign language sign for ''I love you.''

''Aha!'' D.J. says, grinning triumphantly. ''You love me!''

Lynn Price worries about setting the kids up for disappointment. At her camp, children enter a world of constant smiles, hugs and sibling support territory as unfamiliar to many as the dark cabin path was to D.J. on his first night.

That's why Price asks parents and social workers to support the siblings' relationships. She doesn't want the camp to simply remind brothers and sisters what they're missing.

In Price's perfect world, siblings wouldn't be separated in foster care, except in cases when one sibling has abused another.

Yet sibling separation is a sad fact of life for foster children, who number more than 550,000 nationwide.

Studies show that siblings placed together in foster care have fewer problems than those who are separated. Child welfare agencies strive to keep siblings together. But a shortage of foster parents often makes that impossible. According to the National Foster Parent Association, the number of children in foster care increased 90 percent between 1986 and 1996, while the number of foster families decreased 3 percent.

At the closing campfire, the campers talk about their most memorable moments.

''When I put the birthday cupcake in my sister's face,'' one little brother says with relish.

Chloe stands up.

''My most memorable moment,'' she begins, ''was when my brother D.J., and I think her name is Laura? was running around the tree. It just made me feel good because that's when I saw my brother was the happiest kid.''

Her hoarse but clear voice carrying over the crackling fire, she adds: ''I haven't seen him that happy in a long time.''

The next morning, waiting for the buses at 7:30, the kids are too tired to cry. They gather on the grassy lawn where they first arrived. D.J. wanders off to the rock wall again.

For a moment, it looks like D.J. might end camp the same way he began, submerged in his own solitary world. But when he spies Chloe and Sharee tickle-fighting on a pile of luggage, he runs over to join them.

The three of them collapse in giggles, tickling one another until D.J. stretches out on his back, his face lit by the warm morning sun. He's laughing with his sisters as if he'll never stop.

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