Sometimes just one night is all it takes for separated siblings to reconnect.
The third summer session of Camp Catch-Up kicked off from July 28-29, this time, with 40 campers. Camp Catch-Up is a Connected Youth Initiative (CYI) program that reunites siblings between the ages of 8-19 who were separated due to foster care placements.
CYI is a Nebraska Children and Families Foundation initiative that utilizes services and supports for young people. These young participants may have experienced homelessness, child welfare, foster care, juvenile justice or probation, or human trafficking.
Like all of Nebraska Children’s initiatives, there is a reason for Camp Catch-Up. We want all children to thrive alongside their first and most important friends: their siblings.
Today, we spoke with Mona Tarin, Camp Catch-Up Director, about the most recent summer camp highlights.
Mona said that she was excited to welcome so many campers. For this year’s camp sessions, however, Mona said that she and the staff did things a bit differently.
“This year, we gave [campers] the opportunity to do a few extra [camps] to see their siblings!” said Mona.
“For many campers, they signed up for a second opportunity! I had a couple of camper [siblings] who hadn’t seen each other for two years!” said Mona.
Mona doesn’t have to look hard to find meaning in her position as Camp Catch-Up Director. She said the campers’ excitement is palpable.
Although Mona said that the campers have gone through a lot in their lives, she knows that she and her staff can contribute to their reunion.
“The [campers] are going through so much,” said Mona. “Whether they’re losing parents or even their adoptive parents, they’re also going through changes and becoming teenagers!” She said.
Moreover, Mona said that she’s enjoyed giving the attendees a much-needed extra opportunity to reunite.
Mona said, “A few kids have not connected with their siblings for two years. A lot of these kids are trying to figure out who they are. And they aren’t with their families or siblings. If we can provide these memories, even once or twice a year, then we’ve done something well.”
Mona said that this second summer session of camp, which included an overnight at Henry Doorly Zoo, was particularly impactful.
The campers were able to enjoy pizza, thanks to Aaron Weaver, a CYI Central Navigator. Mona said that Aaron was able to secure the pizza due to a generous donation.
“Once the campers got into the zoo, it was amazing!” said Mona. “They got to stay [overnight].”
From there, Mona said, the campers saw where the wild things are, including stingrays, which they were allowed to touch!
Mona said that the best moments are when the campers first reunite and interact with each other.
“They get so excited to see each other. We had a set of little kids who were so excited to see their siblings. Not only do they love their siblings; they love the staff!” said Mona.
Mona said that returning campers bond with other campers, their siblings, and the counselors, too. Mona said, the campers’ excitement to see their siblings is apparent regardless of age.
“One young [camper] is seventeen; her siblings are younger and are getting adopted. It was so wonderful to see them reunite,” said Mona.
“[The oldest sister] said, ‘I think [my siblings] worry about me, and I worry about them.’ She commented that ‘They cry when I leave.’ I asked her she’d last seen her family. She said, ‘Probably since the last camp. We try to connect outside of it, but it’s hard.'”
Mona said that another group of siblings reunited at a pivotal time, as they are all getting adopted into different homes. According to Mona, these separate placements heightened the siblings’ bonding.
“I love to see the campers interact; they’re so kind and loving!” said Mona. “One of them was in a wheelchair due to some health issues, and [the siblings] kept saying, ‘Oh, I’ll push him!’”
Mona said that other campers love to chat and pass the time playing games and in groups with counselors exploring the exhibits.
“One girl is in a group home, and she was just so excited to connect with her little sister. They talk to each other, play UNO, and have fun being with other kids. Not only do they love siblings; they love meeting new friends,” said Mona.
Beyond everything, Mona said that camp provides a like-minded community.
“The thing that camp brings to the campers is that they’re not alone,” said Mona. “There are others here, not with the same story, exactly, but a similar one,” she said. “This is a family camp. [Campers] immediately start hugging each other. I haven’t seen anyone who wasn’t excited!”
Mona said that one of the best parts of camp is watching the children come out of their shells.
“The new kids can be a little shy, but the ones who have come before are more relaxed. But by the end, the new ones still had that special time – and it only took a day!” said Mona. “One little boy was initially shy, but by the end, he was connecting! By the end, you can see the unity they have.”
After the campers split off into groups, they saw sea lions and animals. Mona said that the most amazing thing was when the attendees saw stingrays.
“It’s a big pool; the kids went all over and touched them. The kids just loved it,” she said.
That night, in preparation for the sleepover, Mona said that the campers watched The Lion King.
“All the kids had their sleeping bags out; they were great watching the movie and interacting with siblings. We had snacks, including leftover pizza,” said Mona.
But the lights didn’t stay out for long. At 6 am, the campers woke up to a hearty breakfast, thanks to Lisa Farley, who was kind enough to make 100 burritos.
From there, Mona said everyone took a special aquarium tour, including some receiving some interesting information about sharks. As the campers divided into groups, again, each of the volunteers took the campers wherever they wanted.
For Mona, moments like these are essential not only for reuniting, but to provide an authentic, carefree experience for the campers.
“You want to give every kid the chance to be a kid. They went to the IMAX Theater and saw movies with their siblings. And we ended in the splash pad. After that, the kids left at 4:30 pm. It was fast but a great chance for them to spend the night and have a little more time with their siblings. I’ve heard a lot of people say this camp was great,” said Mona.
Mona said she’s grateful to Deb Reiman, Nebraska Children’s Assistant Vice President of Early Childhood Programs. A foster mother herself, Deb donated popsicles for the campers.
Best of all, though, Mona said that this overnight camp’s success has given way to other ideas for subsequent sessions.
“We’ll start thinking about a day [camp] and other overnighters,” said Mona.
Mona said that these camps are essential to the young attendees.
“Camp Catch-Up is important,” said Mona. “During the last camp, when we sat around the campfire, each kid shared their favorite part of camp. They’ll say, ‘I love my siblings, meeting new people, the zipline.’ It was powerful for me,” said Mona.
“I said, ‘THIS is why I work so hard.’ I say, ‘Wow, this is what I did,’” said Mona.
Mona said that the campers’ gratitude is apparent.
“They appreciate all these things. When I stood up at the campfire, I said, ‘I love that you guys come every year. I love to see you grow. THIS is why I do this work.’ I got a little teary-eyed. It’s about caring and seeing everything they say. I invite anyone to come to camp and experience it.”
Camp Catch-Up could not happen without the support of generous donors. If you are moved to help siblings reunite in a fun, camp setting, visit https://campcatchup.org/donate.html.