Whether they were adopted in the U.S. or abroad, our children probably have a culture of origin different from ours. Unlike earlier generations, today’s parents are eager to celebrate that heritage.
As the strains of “Cumbia Cienaguera” begin, the first- grade boys, dressed in white shirts and pants, red bandanas, and straw hats, shuffle onto the stage and form a circle. The girls, in pink dresses with matching kerchiefs, sashay around them, led by two ayudantes (helpers). Fluttering their skirts in time to the music, the girls giggle while the boys bow and twirl around them. Parents snap photos, siblings clap and cheer. As the music ends, the children take a bow, their grins bright enough to light the entire auditorium. So caps another week at La Semana, a Latin-American day camp for adoptees in Minneapolis.
The Culture Connection
Heritage camps, also called culture camps, seek to connect adopted children with their roots by introducing them to age-appropriate music, dance, folktales, holidays, food, fashion, language, and history in a fun and supportive environment. My two boys, both from South Korea, have attended Camp Mu Ji Gae in Albany, New York, for the past two years. Zack, my 6-year-old budding chef, loved making mandu (dumplings) at camp so much that he made them with his schoolmates for Korean New Year.
Preschoolers at a Russia camp might color pieces of a troika puzzle picturing the classic Russian sleigh pulled by three horses. Grade-schoolers might play games or learn simple phrases in the language of their birth country. Middle-school kids might play folk instruments or learn about their country’s history.
While cultural activities may be the draw for younger children, camps let older children find camaraderie in a relaxed setting. “Camp is a place where they are just like everyone else, and no one is asking them a million questions,” says Beverlee Einsig of Dillon International Inc., which hosts Korean, Indian, Chinese, and Eastern European camps.
There are as many camp styles as there are cultures they serve. Some meet for two days over a weekend; others last a week. There are day and sleepaway camps. Some are community based, perhaps operated out of a local school; others happen in a natural setting miles away. Parent involvement tends to be heaviest at programs for young children, tapering off as children get older. And depending on their philosophy, programs may add adoption workshops to the heritage theme.
Many parents rely on camps for birth-country information that they don’t have access to. To this end, most camps strive to make the experiences genuine, engaging natives of the culture as teachers. “I can’t give enough credit to the local cultural communities,” says Pam Sweetser, executive director of Colorado Heritage Camps, which runs nine camps for different ethnicities. “It’s important that we stay authentic, and the community groups make sure we do that.”
Unlike conventional kids’ camps, many heritage camps stress family participation. They offer parents workshops and classes in craft-making as well as adoption issues. White parents with adopted African-American children might learn about black hair and skin care. Many camps depend on parent volunteers, so parents may be asked to tell stories, help children with crafts, cook, and clean up.
“We have many creative parents who do a lot to see that the camps are as good as they can be,” says Beverlee Einsig of Dillon International. Teenagers also may serve as helpers or counselors. At La Semana, teens divide their time between helping younger campers and participating in activities with their peers.
For children who live in homogenous communities, camp may be the only place they interact with families like their own. “To see another Chinese child with Caucasian parents going off to breakfast affirms their family constellation,” says Peter Kassen, co-director of Hidden Valley Camp in Freedom, Maine, where an annual Chinese Culture Family Weekend is held each summer.
Marisa Martin, 20, a junior at American University in Washington, D.C., and a Korean adoptee, was a long-time camper at a Holt Heritage Camp (held in New Jersey, Nebraska, and Oregon), where she has served as a counselor and an assistant director. Martin said that after attending camp at age 14, “I was so proud to be adopted. Questions like, ‘Why is your last name Martin?’ and ‘Why don’t you speak Korean?’ didn’t bother me anymore. Holt camp has helped me get through so much in my life.”
Katherine Mikkelson is a freelance writer who lives with her family in the Chicago area.
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