Imagine being 10 years old and not getting to celebrate your birthday with your parents and beloved siblings. Dashya (pronounced D-shy-a), 10, of Baltimore doesn’t have to imagine.
It’s his reality.
He and his sister, Shyda (pronounced Shy-day), 12, have been in foster care and separated from each other and from their mother since spring. When Dashya celebrated his birthday on Aug. 25, his sister wasn’t by his side.
“Of course I missed her,” says the bouncing-off-the-walls, athletic 10-year-old, dark eyes darting like a pingpong ball.
In an attempt to right this - and other - wrongs, over Labor Day weekend, counselors at Camp to Belong in High View, W.Va., treated Dashya, Shyda and eight other separated-by-foster-care sibling sets ages 9 to 14 to birthday cake, balloons, streamers and presents.
“It’s a good cake,” says Shyda, who dreams of becoming a track star, after tasting her and Dashya’s very own vanilla-frosted white cake. (Each sibling set got an individual cake.)
A moment later, though, Shyda and Dashya were no longer eating the cake. They were smearing each other’s smiling faces with the frosting. Seconds later, the mandatory chasing around the camp’s rustic dining hall ensued.
But they and other cake-smearing siblings weren’t reprimanded.
“They’re just being siblings,” says Aleathia Adams, the camp director. “We want to give them an opportunity to communicate and hang out with each other on their own terms, unlike official visitation hours when they are supervised.”
This is the whole idea behind Camp to Belong, which was started in 1995 in Las Vegas and is in its first year in the Washington area: to let siblings who are separated in their daily lives do silly - and meaningful - activities that bring them closer and create thoughtful memories.
Shyda and Dashya, for example, have weekly visitations with court-appointed supervisors in downtown Baltimore, a far cry from the camp and its backdrop of rolling green hills, willows, ponds, athletic courses and small light blue cabins, and certainly from canoeing, building a campfire or sewing keepsake pillows.
“A lot of it is like your typical camp. The difference is we focus on the sibling unit,” says Lynn Price, founder of the nonprofit Camp to Belong, who is a former foster child.
“We want to give these siblings a chance to re-connect, to rebuild,” she says. “Truly connecting with your sibling gives you a shared history that no one else will give you.”
She should know.
When Ms. Price was 8 years old, she found out she had an older sister.
“At first, it was all hush-hush for me, but my sister was very open,” she says. “I was grateful to her for reaching out to me and not giving up on me.”
In the end, Ms. Price and her sister became very close and achieved a sense of belonging together. Ms. Price started the camp to make the re-connecting part a little easier for siblings separated by foster care.
The camp has spread since 1995 and has six locations.
The camp usually lasts a week, but the one in High View in West Virginia, sponsored and organized by the National Association of Former Foster Care Children of America, is just three days this year. The District of Columbia Child and Family Services Agency is also a sponsor. Next year, Ms. Adams hopes to extend it to a week and raise money through grants and donations.
It sounds so perfect - the idyllic camp setting, the team-building exercises, the canoeing and zip-line rides, the birthday party.
In truth, it’s not all that rosy.
The siblings fight. Make up. Treat each other with silence. Cry. It’s an emotional roller coaster.
Take Triandrea, 12, of Suitland and her brother, Dion, 13, of Upper Marlboro.
They haven’t seen each other for a couple of months, and when they sit down for the camp’s birthday party, Dion wants his sister all to himself. He gets angry when two girls come over to talk to Triandrea about a campfire performance of R. Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly.”
Dion’s temper flares, and “Tri,” who is sad-eyed even when smiling, is in tears. For the rest of the day, she barely talks to her brother. He later expresses dissatisfaction over a gift she picked out for him, hurting her feelings. Is he retaliating?
“No, it’s just not what I wanted,” he says of the markers and paints his sister picked out for him in the camp’s birthday store.
Triandrea looks defeated.
“Are you mad at me? You didn’t like it?” she asks in rapid-fire style.
Dion doesn’t look at her but says, “No. I didn’t.”
This kind of emotional flare-up is typical, says Heidi Krieger, a visiting counselor from Topsom, Maine, where Camp to Belong is in its fifth year.
“The closer you get to the bus ride home, the harder it gets,” Ms. Krieger says. “Their barriers come up. Many times they don’t know when they’ll get to see each other again. They don’t know what to do with the bad feelings.”
The counselors try to encourage communication and empower the youngsters to put pressure on social workers to allow them to stay connected to their siblings and, if at all possible, be reunited in a foster home.
“They often don’t know that they can do that,” Ms. Krieger says. “They don’t know how to verbalize how they feel and what they want.”
Aside from the birthday party, Camp to Belong’s signature activities include making an “I am” poster, which showcases dreams, and exchanging pillows the siblings have personalized.
On Shyda’s “I am” poster are pictures of track stars Marion Jones and Gail Devers. The text says she wants to be in the Olympics “because I love to run.”
Dashya’s poster indicates he wants to be a gymnast, but he also has adorned the poster with dinosaurs and volcanoes.
Each night, the campers settle at the campfire at the edge of the camp, against the backdrop of the dark forest, roasting marshmallows for s’mores, performing and talking about emotions and experiences. On the last night, though, feelings are tense, and like Dashya’s volcanoes, the air seems ready to erupt.
Dashya is tired but restless, and in one of his fidgety moves, he puts the keepsake pillow made by his sister and packed with loving text up to his cheek and says, “I’m going to sleep on it like this.”
His sister doesn’t react. Her spirit seems as low as the setting sun.
Warmed by the campfire flames, she buries her face in the pillow Dashya made her, the one that says she’s the “sweetest person ever” and the “best sister ever” and “love you, Dashya.”
Instead of acknowledging her low mood and hugging or holding his sister, Dashya turns his back on her. Too much to bear? He won’t say.
He just hides in his oversized hooded sweatshirt, nestling his face between his knees.
Ms. Adams interprets: “This is their last night at camp, and they don’t want to go home. … They don’t want to be separated.”