It's a question most of us don't have to ponder: Who are my "real" parents? But for adopted children, especially those of a different race than the parents raising them, it's a haunting one. It's often a question other kids will ask, not always in a friendly setting.
Camp Claire in Lyme is offering a new camping program for one week this summer specifically for kids who are adopted. The program, called Camp Clio, is designed to provide a supportive setting where the youngsters can address and explore this crucial part of their self-identity and personal development with peers.
The camp, for 9- to 12-year-olds, is the collaboration of Sandy Kuhach Axilrod, the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, Columbia University's Action Arts Camp and Camp Claire's director, Beth Mishou. It is named after Clio Da Hyun Axilrod, a girl who was adopted from Korea and loved her week at Camp Claire in the summer of 2009. Clio drowned in a storm wave at Acadia National Park in August 2009 at age 7; the Clio DH Axilrod Foundation seeks to provide experiences for adopted children to help them explore their identities in a safe, non-judgmental environment.
"Camp Clio is different because it is not a heritage camp, just for kids from Korea, China, Vietnam or Russia," says Sandy Axilrod, Clio's mother. "It is for any child who is adopted because any child who is adopted has the same issues of their own identity. At this age, kids are starting to form their own vision of themselves. It's hard. Even if you look like your parents and other kids don't know you're adopted, you still don't know (about your birth parents), and you have questions."
Camp Clio's Cool Creative Café program uses elements of performance arts geared toward fostering personal self-expression and confidence. The campers can use music, instruments and visual arts to safely and creatively express themselves.
Camp Clio is going on simultaneously within a typical relaxed Camp Claire week of canoeing, swimming and campfires, so all of the campers will get to know each other.
"This camp is a piece of what helps shape positive identity, and it allows us to bring to light the research that we've been doing," says Adam Pertman, executive director, Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, which in 2009 published "Beyond Culture Camp," a study of promoting healthy identity formation in adoption. "There are lots of models of culture camps, but this one is unique in the melding of adopted kids with non-adopted kids."
"It's about adoption and family connections, not just a particular country and its heritage," says Lynn Gabbard, director of Adoption Services for Lutheran Social Services of New England in Rocky Hill, who worked with the institute to develop the camp curriculum. "Hopefully, the general population of kids at the camp will come out of this understanding more about the realness of adoption, about the realness of adoptive families."
Started in 1916, Camp Claire has a loyal following of client families from all over the world, as children and grandchildren continue the tradition of an "old-fashioned" experience in the bucolic setting on Hamburg Cove. One former camper, a counselor in training, is from London. The assistant camp director is from Scotland, taking a summer break from her professorship at the University of Aberdeen.
"There's a very strong sense of family here. It's really all about building community, keeping kids safe," says Mishou, herself a mom, who says she sets high standards for staff to treat everyone's children the way she would want her own to be treated. "The whole climate here is very positive, very upbeat, people supporting each other."
The camp can accommodate 125 campers. Most come for a one-week experience, either overnight, for ages 8 to 16, or day camp for as young as 6 years old. Some kids stay for several weeks.
Axilrod hopes to have about 20 Camp Clio participants, one cabin of girls and one of boys. The adopted campers will stay together so they can have their own special discussions with peers and with older teenage counselors who can relate to their thoughts and emotions. Day-camp arrangements are possible.
"One of the key things of Camp Clio is that the counselors also are adopted, and they will be specially trained to address adoption topics and issues, including proper language and terms," says Axilrod.
All of the Camp Claire staff will go through training about adoption topics, too, Mishou said.
Axelrod hopes Camp Clio experience becomes a prototype that can be developed at other facilities around the country.
Camp Clio, from July 1 to 7 at Camp Claire, is $470. Scholarships are available. For details, visit www.campclio.org and www.campclaire.org.