Keeping siblings connected

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HINSDALE -- Ashley Figueroa shares the same blood with nine other siblings, but not the same home. They all live in foster care, but not together.

The siblings stay in touch by texting and through online computer programs. But living apart makes it harder for them to develop the kinds of bonds that siblings who reside in the same home do.

"We had a lot of catching up to do," said Ashley, who is 20.

Figueroa and six of her siblings came together this weekend for "Camp to Belong Massachusetts," a program held at Camp Taconic on New Windsor Road that allows siblings in foster care that reside separately to live together for five days. This year's camp ends today.

The program was founded six years ago by Lynn Price, a former foster child who runs the nonprofit Sibling Connections, an initiative that provides activities designed to bring siblings in foster care who reside separately together. This is the fourth year that Camp to Belong Massachusetts has been held at Camp Taconic.

"They always say that the sibling bond is the largest relationship that you'll have in your life," said Sheila Kane, a board member of Sibling Connections. "We provide them with a connection that they can take with them."

This year's program included 87 boys and girls ranging in age from 8 to 20 who live from Cape Cod to the Berkshires. Fifty youngsters were attending for the first time.

Some of the campers have been adopted, "but all of the kids have been in foster care at one time or another," said program director Kelley Lane. To be eligible, siblings must have lived in separate residences for at least one year.

The schedule included traditional camp activities like swimming and horseback riding, as well as with initiatives specifically geared towards siblings like birthday parties, letter writing, scrapbooks and photo taking.

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"Simple things that you don't even realize," Lane said. "They get to eat together, and sleep in the same cabin."

Ashley and her four sisters, Desirae, 18, Maria, 16, Yamilex, 14, and 12-year old brothers Joshua and Jonathan, spent time hanging out together. This was their second year at the camp.

"Before the first year we hadn't seen each other in six years," said Ashley, who will enter Salem State College in the fall.

"This helps you know each other," Yamilex added.

Jelissa Jefferson, 18, of Northampton, was a runaway two years ago. But after attending Camp to Belong Massachusetts last year, and being adopted by a counselor, the Springfield native graduated from Northampton High School last year. She will attend Westfield State College this fall.

"I feel like I'm nicer," said Jefferson. "Before I had more attitude. Now, if I see a camper crying I'll go over and comfort them. I can relate to 95 percent of what they're talking about."

To reach Tony Dobrowolski:

TDobrowolski@berkshireeagle.com

(413) 496-6224


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