Cheerleading for Heritage Camps
Each year, for the past ten, at about this time, my family
rolls their eyes with that "here she goes again" expression that's hard to miss. It's "CAMP TIME!" Let the games begin! I drag out my cheerleading paraphernalia (telephone, computer, fax machine, etc.), and begin the annual ritual of "rah-rahing" for every adoptive family with children internationally or transracially adopted children to come to camp! If it's not one of the camps sponsored by Colorado Heritage Camps, that's ok. Any camp, anywhere will do!
It seems like just yesterday when my family attended the first Korean
Heritage Camp in Colorado. My Korean-born daughter was five years old, and my Indian-born son had just turned three. I was so overwhelmed by the experience that I knew it was destined to be a big part of my life for many years to come. Granted, I didn't know quite how big.
My daughter went to first grade at a new school that Fall after the first camp, and was so proud to tell everyone she was Korean. She brought the flag to school, and we brought "bulgogi," the Korean barbecued meat, and told a Korean folktale to her class. In fact, when she was teased one day by a kid who called her "Chinese eyes," she retorted with "I'm Korean eyes." It was as if she was saying, "Hey if you're going to tease me, at least get it right!"
My Indian son told everyone he was Korean too. That's when I realized we'd better get a camp going for him pretty darn quick. With many other incredibly enthusiastic families with Indian children, we organized the first East Indian Heritage Camp in 1993. Though my multicultural family experience personally ends with those two countries, I realized early on that this kind of event is valuable, if not indispensable to all adoptive families
with children born of cultures different from their birth parents.
Thus, we developed a Board of Directors, and formed a non-profit organization called Colorado Heritage Camps, Inc. in 1995. I was "elected" head cheerleader as Executive Director. Luckily, I had recently quit my full-time job to ostensibly "stay home with kids, and relax."
The Korean and East Indian Heritage Camps continued and thrived. In 1998, we held our first Chinese
Heritage Camp, and our first Latin American Heritage Camp. In 1999, came first Vietnamese Heritage Camp, and our first African-American Heritage Camp. Then, in 2000, we were proud to add our Filipino Heritage Camp and our Russian (CIS) Heritage Camp! Whew, from two to eight in just a few short years!
So, without any real experience as a cheerleader (never could do a handspring), my "stay and home and relax" status changed slightly, and I found myself waving those pom-poms for heritage camps every chance I had. Believe me, if I could, I'd do handsprings all over the place!
The reason why I cheer so hard is relatively simple - I want adoptive families to win this game of life, and I steadfastly believe that every family with internationally or transracially adopted children, who attends a heritage camp experience, has a much better chance of winning than those who don't!
As Jessica Medinger, a Vietnamese adoptee, so eloquently put it in a past issue of "Chosen Child" (now "Adoption Today") magazine, "Adoptive parents can never pass on the legacy of a culture that is not their own by birth, but they can embrace their children's homeland and by doing so give a sense of validation to their children."
I couldn't have said it better myself. My husband and I are so grateful to have our precious children, but also to have the opportunity to embrace two countries and cultures that we would probably know very little about otherwise. Except for the very obvious color of my skin or shape of my eyes, I honestly feel Indian and Korean sometimes. What an invaluable education for anyone to experience, and a true gift for adoptive families. I cannot imagine passing up an opportunity to be part of another culture, especially that of my child.
You may wonder, then, why I have to "Rah-rah" into my megaphone (ok, telephone) to cheer about heritage camps. It's because there are still too many adoptive families out there who don't avail themselves of this kind of experience. The reasons are varied: "my child is American now, he doesn't need Korea," or "my child is mine, not another culture's," or, "my child is too young, too old, too active, too shy, too scared," or "it's just too expensive to attend camp," and, of course, "my child (husband, wife, sibling) just doesn't want to come this year." These are all valid reasons to those who state them. The cheers begin!
Yes, your child is American, but just what exactly does that mean? In America, you will find Koreans, East Indians, Chinese, Vietnamese, Latino, African-American (you get the idea) people, who each have a unique culture that they must blend into their American life, but they take pride in their culture being a fundamental part of who they are, even if it's just in how they look. Our kids look different than what I think people who make this statement mean when they say, "American." Our kids all came with a culture different from ours. Different is good, different is positive, and our kids need to know that.
Yes, your child is yours now, but the bottom line is, your child is adopted. Your child needs to know what that means and how that effects him or her. The heritage camps in Colorado, help your child deal with the adoption issue as well.
It's never too early to start learning about who you are. Adopted children have a significant hole in their lives, a hole where their birth parents should be, a hole many of our children will never be able to fill. By at least learning something about the place and culture those birth parents came from, our adopted children can fill in part of that hole, which, I venture to say, will help to make them whole human beings. If you have never attended a heritage camp, and your child is now 15. IT IS NEVER TOO LATE either, but almost. I know of many families who didn't think they needed this kind of experience in their lives, until their child became an adolescent, and began to really fall apart, due to such low self-esteem and lack of identity. The camp experience, though just a start, has helped build the self- esteem of these kids and turn them around.
For many families, the cost factor is prohibitive. I only have one word for that, SCHOLARSHIPS. We have many available and very few takers each year. Ask, ask, ask. In my humble opinion, there is no price too high for the well being of my children.
Sometimes, as parents, we get to make the decisions (I know, not often, but we do!). When someone tells me that their child just doesn't want to come to camp this year, I have learned to be rather flip (but accurate) in my response. If your child told you he didn't want to go to the dentists this year, because it's too painful, would you honestly say, "ok then, you don't have to go." I doubt it. Camp is comparable, in that it is preventative medicine. I have listened to too many families with adolescents in crisis, wishing they had made him or her come to camp through childhood. I have also heard many young adult adoptees
, who are counselors talk about wishing they'd had this kind of experience as children. You are the parent, and you can make the decision. Rah-rah!
Now, when someone tells me they aren't coming to camp because their spouse, or other family members, are reluctant about attending. I remind them of the importance of the family attending these camps with their adopted child. Otherwise, it's as if you're saying, "this is your thing (being Korean, Indian, etc.), not our thing. What kind of message is that to send a child? Again, their culture is a fundamental part of who they are, not just a "special activity," like skating or soccer or Boy/Girl Scouts. The entire family should embrace this experience as they are embracing their child.
All of these reasons to attend camp are the reasons I cheer. That, and the utter joy I experience at each camp when I watch my own children, and all of the others, wearing their native costumes, dancing spiritedly to their cultural music, practicing writing their name in Hangul or Hindi, or simply having fun with their friends, who not only look like them, but have the same kind of family as theirs, I see the pride in their faces. I see it in every ounce of them. I also see the sense of well being they feel when they're around the Korean or East Indian counselors at camp. They realize that growing up Korean or Indian is actually pretty cool - it must be if people like their counselors have done it!
At each of the Colorado Heritage Camps, your children will have the opportunity to experience the same feelings, doing much the same kind of activities. You, as parents, will also get a chance to learn more about your child's heritage, and thus learn even more about your precious children. There are also workshops for all ages that center around adoption, facilitated by trained professionals who have done the same at our other camps for years. Most importantly, your family will be surrounded by other families "just like yours," and that is such an amazing feeling. I know from experience.
So, if you want to win at this game of life and love and family harmony, this is one play you don't want to miss. If you know of a heritage camp near you, please attend it this year, and, if not, we welcome you to attend one of our camps here in Colorado. After all, we know a thing or two about cheering for winning teams!
To receive information about one of the Colorado Heritage camps (currently serving families with children of Korean, East Indian, Latin American, Vietnamese, Chinese, African-American, Filipino, and Russian (including Commonwealth of Independent States) heritages), please contact Pam Sweetser by phone: (303) 388-3930, e-mail: email@example.com, or fax: (303) 388-2909, or find us on the web at www.heritagecamps.org. A variation of this article was originally published in the January 1999 issue of "Chosen Child International Adoption Magazine."
Credits: Pam Sweetser