Camps evolve over the years to meet ever changing needs of adoption community By Kim Phagan-Hansel Adoption and heritage camps have a long history in this country. As more and more children were adopted from other countries, the need for connection, resources and understanding of the unique needs of families formed through adoption became apparent. Some camps, like those sponsored by Holt International, have been operating for more than 30 years. Others have cropped up in more recent years. These camps serve a variety of purposes and many have evolved in different directions. Heritage Camps Many of the earliest camps focused on the heritage specific to the country from which the child was adopted. As intercountry adoption built momentum with dramatic increases in numbers of children adopted from countries like China, Korea, Guatemala and Russia, many camps were started with the hope of connecting children to their heritage and culture. Heritage Camps for Adoptive Families was founded in 1991 to solely provide a variety of culture camps designed for families who adopted from specific countries. Some of the earliest camps included Korea, Latin American and China camps. Today, Heritage Camps for Adoptive Families offers 11 camps. “As parents, there is no greater gift you can give your children than the opportunity to discover who they really are and where they come from, and to share in that discovery with them,” said Pam Sweetser, executive director of Heritage Camps for Adoptive Families. “Heritage camps are not like ‘tennis camp,’ or ‘chess camp,’ or even just ‘sleep away camp,’ which are about children’s hobbies and interests. Heritage camps are about your child’s very being — celebrating who they are and where they came from.” Across the country there are several other camps that focus on a child’s heritage like Camp Friendship NJ, Mi Pueblo, Umoja, and Ethiopian Heritage and Culture Camp. Each of these camps is uniquely designed to connect children to their birth culture and heritage. Some of the activities include learning dances and games specific to their birth country, as well as cooking authentic foods and exploring other aspects of the culture. “I look forward to camp every year to reconnect with old friends and make new ones, and to learn about my Korean culture, which I can’t do anywhere else,” said 15-year-old Alexa T. “Camp Friendship is one of my favorite weeks of the year!” Adoption Camps As the number of children coming to America through intercountry adoption dwindled, it began to be recognized that many times a focus on the culture of a child’s birth country wasn’t necessarily the most important aspect of camp for adoptees. In the early 2000s Holt converted its camps to focus more on adoption in general. “Adoptees share a unique understanding and history, so we hope to encourage an environment of fun, growth and the opportunity to immerse themselves into this community,” said Katelyn Marks, director of Holt Camps. “When I’ve asked returning campers why they keep coming back — the main reason is because of the friends they’ve made. I think this is really important, because these friends are their adoptee community, and those relationships will, hopefully, last far beyond camp.” For some participants, camp was the first time they met others who were also adopted and shared similar experiences. At camp, activities delved into deep discussions about race and birth parent searches — many things that all adoptees share in common. “I believe attending adoptee camp is important for adoptees because they are a) fun, b) allows them to be part of their own community, and c) allows them to explore their adoptee identity openly (both at camp and, hopefully later, at home),” Marks said. “I hope that these camps have provided a solid foundation where adoptees feel confident in expressing themselves, not only within this camp environment, but also outside of it.” Older Adoptee Camps With a decreasing number of infant adoptions, the demographics of the camps have changed as well. As the population of adoptees has aged, so have the programs offered at the camps. “One of our largest growing programs is our pre-teen groups, which is a one-day camp held four times a year in different cities around the U.S.,” said Lisa Wiedenhaupt, director of lifetime support services department at Dillon International. “This event mirrors very closely to another one of our largest growing camps, which is our annual teen retreat called Discovery Days. This event focuses on allowing a safe space for teens to create friendships with other teens that have been adopted, talk about adoption related topics with peers who understand what they are feeling and spend time with adult adoptee counselors. Over the past five years this camp has been our largest growing summer camp.” In addition to camps aimed at teens, more retreat-style camps are being created for adult adoptees. As adoption is a lifelong journey, there has been an increasing recognition that adult adoptees still need supports and resources at different stages of their lives. Two years ago Heritage Camps for Adoptive Families in Colorado created an Adult Adoptee retreat. Directed by adoptees, the retreat, which will take place July 28-30 in Denver, is created to address the needs of older adoptees. “The Adult Adoptee Retreat allows adult adoptees from all backgrounds to share a safe space,” said Lexi Narmada Morris, 2016 retreat participant. “To have a place where you can share your story and learn from others is a beautiful gift.” Something for Everyone Whether families are seeking cultural connection for their child or a safe place to talk about adoption, there is a camp somewhere in this country that is designed to specifically meet those needs. “My child has built some strong relationships with other adoptees and this has made a huge impact on her. It has been a great confidence builder,” said one Dillon International adoptive parent. “She is proud of her Korean heritage and I appreciate that Dillon partners with me to create and maintain this pride.” From young to old, adoptees are finding connection and community that support them on their lifelong journey. For a list of camps available across the country, see page 16 of the February 2017 issue.