Why Heritage Camp is for the Whole Family
By: Pam Sweetser
Each year adoptive parents invariably ask me, “Can I just send my child to your heritage camp without me?” – especially if she’s a teenager. I also hear, “Don’t you think we should wait until he’s older?” – especially if he’s a toddler. To both questions, I try to politely respond, “Heck no!”
In the 20 years I have been involved with Heritage Camps for Adoptive Families, first as a parent volunteer, then as the Executive Director, there are a few things I know for sure. One of those things is that heritage camps should be a whole family experience, and that experience should begin just about the time the family becomes a family.
Now, don’t get me wrong, any kind of heritage camp experience at any time in your adopted child’s life, is better than no camp at all. In fact, there are many fine culture camps around the country that are “kid only” camps. They, of course, accomplish the task of immersing adoptees in their culture, giving them the opportunity to spend time with other adoptees, and help develop that sense of pride and self-esteem that all heritage camps strive to do. As a parent, however, I can’t imagine sending my children off to experience these profound feelings without me being there with them.
In other words, 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. When you send your child to tennis camp or sleep away camp, they may come home playing better tennis or having learned some fun new songs. When they go to heritage camp, they should come home knowing more about their inner most person, feeling like a little of that hole in their lives is filled, something we as parents simply can’t do as well as the cultural role models our children meet at camp. Why would you want to miss that?
One mom made my point for me very clearly a few years ago at our Indian Nepalese Heritage Camp. She told me about sending her Korean-born son to a culture camp near their home, which was a “kid only” camp. He loved it, made many friends, and did come home with that sense of pride in being Korean. She thought it was great for him. Then, she came to our Indian Nepalese Heritage Camp with her Indian-born daughter, and not only did it have a profound effect on her daughter, but on her as well. She said she always knew how important camp was for her son, but could never share in it with him, and didn’t feel she knew about “being Korean” as much as she knew about “being Indian,” by experiencing camp with her daughter. She was a little sad to realize she didn’t have the same connection with her son’s identity as she did her daughter’s.
I’ve also had bio siblings help me to come to my conclusion about family camps, in the number of times I’ve seen that “ah-hah” look on their faces when they begin to realize what it feels like to be the only minority in the family perhaps, or in the neighborhood, or just to feel “different” for being adopted. We have had some bio siblings whose adopted siblings are now old enough to be counselors at camp (after high school graduation), and the siblings want to keep coming anyway! In my particular family, with my Korean daughter and Indian son, I can honestly say they enjoyed each other’s camps as much as their own, and made lasting friends at both.
My husband and I have always felt so lucky to have Korea and India in our lives, through our children of course, but also through all the wonderful Korean and Indian people we’ve met at camp, and all the cultural awareness we’ve learned about. Except for the very obvious color of my skin or shape of my eyes, I honestly feel Indian and Korean sometimes. I am also so very fortunate to immerse myself in six other cultures each summer at our various heritage camps. What an invaluable education for anyone to experience, and a true gift for adoptive families. Again, I cannot imagine passing up an opportunity to be so immersed in another culture, especially that of my child.
The other great thing about having the entire family go to camp is the opportunity we have to be around so many other families like ours, learning about similar issues we’ve faced and experiences we’ve had. From the very first time someone says to your child on the preschool playground, “That can’t be your Mommy,” to those more complicated feelings of loss that children manifest in a million ways, especially as they reach adolescence, it is comforting to know that we are not alone. No matter where your child was born, there are issues faced by adopted children that are somewhat universal. At camp, parents can gain the insight and advice needed to handle most anything.
It’s never too early or too late to go to a heritage camp. It will be an invaluable experience for your adopted child, and for you, whenever you get there, but do get there, and get there as a family!