Although Camp Catch-Up (CCU) has traditionally taken place during the summer, the resilient team remains devoted to reuniting siblings between the ages of 8-19 who were separated by the foster care system. When CCU canceled their summer sessions due to the pandemic, like everything the team does, they substituted their temporary disappointment with innovation.
In place of the regular, in-person summer camps, CCU held a Zoom-based summer session, Virtual Sibling Vibes, to a great effect. From there on, the staff reasoned, why should they stop?
Now well into the fall, CCU held a session at Camp Solaris, near Firth, Nebraska, with winter sessions at Camp Rivercrest on the horizon. These smaller camps will uphold the Center for Disease Control’s best practices for social distancing and meet in smaller groups. Siblings may enroll in one of these two sessions by way of an online system here.
Mona Tarin, the CCU Camp Director, and her team are a testament to what creativity and commitment can do. Like all of Nebraska Children and Families Foundation’s initiatives, CCU’s commitment celebrates the campers, who thrive and come together with their first and most important friends. The camp, like all of our opportunities, contributes to a better Nebraska, which creates positive change, pandemic or not.
The team kicked off Camp Catch-Up on September 25. The sessions presented some fun activities from the past and new ones, including cooking before a campfire, tie-dying, and crafts-making. Camp delivered a seasonal spin, too, with pumpkin-carving and painting to boot. For adventure-seekers, the campers and counselor glimpsed Nebraska from an aerial view!
Mona said she was excited to see this year’s new camp host four families, which made for a good turnout of attendees who had fun while social distancing.
Camp began the first night when campers gathered, met up with their siblings, enjoyed a campfire introduction, and wore their matching shirts in solidarity. The fall air was crisp and filled with the electricity of excitement as the campers and staff had fun while telling stories around the campfire.
Aside from offering an energetic atmosphere, the campers and some of the counselors ascended to new heights the next day as they rose 30-feet as part of Solaris Aerial Park’s challenge course! Staff Andrea Werner, Maggie Peterson, and Miriam Werner showed up to support the campers and end the day with carving pumpkins and toasting their seeds!
While the campers carved pumpkins and caught up with their siblings, a surprise reunion took place.
“Siblings were able to carve pumpkins, [and] one family stated this was the first time they ever carved them together!” said Mona. Each child from that family had attended CCU’s summer sessions for respectively four, five, six, and seven years but the siblings had never carved a pumpkin together.
“This camp was unique,” said Mona.
One of the campers who carved pumpkins for the first time with his siblings, Luis Sorensen, said he was especially excited. In his entire six years of camp, Luis had never had the chance to carve pumpkins with his siblings all together.
Aaron Weaver, Project Everlast Omaha Central Navigator, said, “This was an awesome camp because it was a chance for siblings to have extra time to spend time and get to know each other.”
Mona echoed Aaron’s sentiments.
“There’s something about when the kids come together, and you’re waiting for them, and then they DO come together and see each other, and they SMILE. I get goosebumps. It’s a feeling that you have to be there to experience and see the love they have for each other,” said Mona.
“Fall camp was really neat because we were able to do this for them,” said Mona regarding reuniting the siblings for first special activities.
“Sometimes campers only see their siblings during summer camp,” she said. “Families get busy, involved in sports. We’re trying to move forward and have year-round activities, so [kids] can see their siblings during holiday events,” said Mona.
“For some siblings, it will be two years until they next see each other. Even before COVID, I thought about how to address this,” she said.
There were more surprises to come. Mona said the camp hosted a special visitor for one of the families. “[The campers’] older sister, who was a former camper herself, brought her one-year-old daughter to visit!” said Mona.
The Salas family, who came together for camp, met with their sister, Jacque, who aged out of care. She made a surprise visit with her baby so that she and her little one could carve pumpkins for the first time with her aunties and uncles. Mona said that Jacque and her child were happy to spend the whole day and night.
“The more I think about it, a lot of these campers age out of camp, and then they don’t have the opportunity to see their siblings. Having Jacque come that week makes me think we can open the camp up more to let older siblings come. When [older siblings] age out of care and camp, they lose that connection and it’s sad,” she said.
When Mona said she asked one of the campers about whether he was looking forward to camp, he earnestly replied.
“I said to Luis, ‘Were you excited for camp?’” said Mona. “He said, ‘Yes. I come because I miss my little brother and I want to see him.’”
The fall event consisted of lots of other activities for campers such as art, scrapbooking, games, fishing, and Hobo Dinners over the campfire.
Best of all, perhaps, was the campers’ and counselors’ positive feedback regarding the intimacy and breathing room they experienced from the smaller session.
“We had a lot of staff and campers comment on how much they loved the smaller camp because it gave siblings more time to bond and just time to hang out,” said Mona.
In addition to receiving praise about camp, Mona recognizes and thanks the impressive members of the camp’s super staff: Julia Long, Jordan Lopez, Madi Davis, Shayla Johnson, Aaron Weaver, a Nedhal Al-kazahy, and Miles Cristiano.
One of the mornings, Sebastian Coolidge and Jaymie Lynn helped Mona with the breakfast preparations, which included fluffy golden pancakes.
That night, campers got a taste of something special, too. The campers each prepared their own Hobo’s Dinner, which consisted of tin-foiled wrapped baby carrots, potatoes, and beef prepared over an open fire.
As a grand finale activity, the counselors printed out the photos, and the campers created photo albums for their memories.
Mona said next year’s fall camp is a definite go. From there, CCU will hold three separate day camps in the New Year. As she plans a camp schedule for after the New Year, Mona said the best is yet to come. She is excited, and once she creates the activities, she will let everyone know about what she and her team have planned.