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  • Bob Partlow

Sibling Strong Celebrates National Sibling Day

Sibling Strong is a success by any measure.

In both data and deeds, evidence and experience show Sibling Strong helps heal the broken bonds caused when brothers and sisters are separated in out-of-home care.

The foundational week-long Camp To Belong WA has served about 1,500 separated siblings since 2009.

Seeing the success of camp, we changed our name to Sibling Strong to reflect our mission to connect as many separated siblings as possible, in as many ways and in as many places in the state as possible.

Since 2016, we have connected 15-40 siblings at each event, such as Halloween at Maris Farms and a springtime event at Defy Trampoline Park, both in Pierce County. Siblings spent at whole day with each other at Silverwood Theme Park outside Spokane and at the Riverfront Park ice skating in downtown Spokane.

Now, Sibling Strong have plans to expand in a big way into King County.

Built on the foundation of camp, Sibling Strong is growing our programs statewide because we know what we are doing works. We have seen the positive human effects on siblings – changed life experiences.

Those effects are expressed by siblings all the time.

“It helps you share your life with your siblings,” said Ukrainian-born Lidiya Millstone, now 25 and living in Florida with her sister Viktoriya. Lidiya, Viktoriya and four other siblings came to camp in 2010.

“No one is going to remotely understand what you have been through. It reconnects people who may have been apart for years.”

The Data Shows:

The success we hear repeatedly from siblings like Lidiya is substantiated with measurable data.

Since 2013, Dr. Jeffrey Waid, a researcher at the University of Minnesota, has surveyed campers and counselors at Washington’s Sibling Strong camp and twelve others.

His conclusion: “It is magic. It is a miracle. But it’s not just a feeling. We can explain it with data.”

Here is what the data shows from the latest survey of Sibling Strong’s camp in 2018. This data matches Sibling Strong camp data from earlier years and from years-long data across all camps.

  • I created special memories with my siblings at camp - 98.75%

  • I got to spend quality time with my siblings at camp 98.75%

  • I learned new things about my siblings at camp 75.95%

  • My sibling(s) and I got along well at camp 96.25%

  • Camp To Belong made my relationship with my sibling(s) stronger 86.25%

  • Camp To Belong made me more hopeful about the future 90%

  • Camp To Belong should be made available to more siblings in foster care 98.73%

His research also showed increased resilience among siblings - an increased ability to overcome challenges.

“The biggest year-to-year differences in youth outcomes are for resilience, with the greatest benefit to youth in their first year at camp ,” Waid’s research shows.

Waid said the research is “evidence-informed” and could be described as a “promising practice.”

His data gives Sibling Strong great confidence and motivation to keep moving forward and expand our reach.

“We hope the day comes when we don’t need the events that Sibling Strong offers because siblings are living together,” said Sibling Strong Director Deb Kennedy.

“But until that day comes, we are passionately committed to helping create as tight a sibling bond as possible.”

How big is the sibling separation issue? The national child welfare organization Casey Family Programs assessed the size of the issue this way:

“Approximately two-thirds of children in foster care have a sibling in care, and yet — despite the benefits of joint sibling placements — it is estimated that more than 70% of children with siblings are separated from one or more of their siblings while in care.”

“In the United States today, there are more adults searching for their siblings than searching for their biological parents. Former children of the child welfare system are suing agencies to release information that will aid their search, and they are winning,” Kathy Barbell wrote several years ago for the Child Welfare League of America

Why does this matter?

The pain of sibling separation is real, according to researchers and child welfare experts. Usually, siblings are our longest life connections. We outlive our parents; our children outlive us. So, we walk the journey of life with our brothers and sisters.

“Children often understand why they must be separated from their parents, but separation from siblings is not understandable. Adult adoptees and foster care alumni both describe the loss of contact as the most devastating loss they experienced.,” wrote the Idaho Permanent Placement Committee.

“When we split up foster children from their brothers and sisters, we are taking away the only connection they still have to the people they love. The pain literally drives children crazy,” said the late Gordon Johnson of the Jane Addams Hull House Association.

The organization Alternative Family Services described it in this story.

“When we enter foster care, we lose everything you need in order to move on, or to move forward in life, in foster care,” says Noy, who first entered foster care at age three.

At Sibling Strong, we repeatedly hear about the strength of the sibling bond.

“If I had the choice of spending a year in Hawaii or 45 seconds with my brother, I would choose my brother,” said one camper.

In research done about sibling separation, the emphasis is often put on placing siblings together. But when they are not or cannot be placed together, what Sibling Strong offers can be used as a great connection point.

“Siblings may be able to spend time together in a joint activity or at summer or weekend camps, including camps specifically designed for siblings in foster care (e.g., Camp to Belong),” noted a paper on sibling separation produced by the federal Children’s Bureau.

Multiply that effect from one week of camp to connection events all across the state all year long and the ripple effect can be enormous.

In addition to sibling connections, Sibling Strong offers hope and empowerment.

Counselors at Sibling Strong events often hold their fingers a few inches apart and tell siblings “this is your life story so far and somebody else has written most of it.” They then hold their arms far part and say, “this is the rest of your life story, and you get to write it.”

Lidiya took that to heart, demanding to be moved from a foster home after camp. She left and eventually was adopted by a family in Florida: “Camp really affected me. After camp, I wanted to move.”

She also experienced Life Seminar, where campers fourteen and older are exposed to educational and job opportunities many of them – like Lidiya – never knew they had. Her counselor still remembers seeing Lidiya’s eyes widen as she listened to what her life could be, realizing she had a whole future in front of her.

“I remember thinking ‘I do have a lot of choices,’ “ she said. “Camp showed me there were other resources” for kids like her. “How were we going to know there was support out there?”

And, she added, “It helped being around other foster kids.”

Now, she is close to finishing a master’s degree and is considering getting a PhD. Her goal is to become a mental health therapist.

Camp added one more element, she said.

She and two of her sisters returned as counselors, giving back what camp had given them.

“I Found My People”

Sibling Strong is about connection, relationship, family, bonding and belonging.

Ask identical twins Emily and Sarah Stochel how important Sibling Strong has been in their lives and they answer in unison with the same word: “huge.”

Emily went into foster care at age 14. Sarah did not, but the twins, now twenty-seven, spent years with little connection – until Emily found Camp To Belong while searching for a place to volunteer that could connect her to her life experiences.

Both sisters are now deeply involved with Sibling Strong: Sarah sits on the Sibling Strong Board of Directors. Both help organize the half-day and full-day events and are Sibling Strong leaders.

Both know the gift of lives changed by the sibling connection.

In world other siblings would easily recognize, Emily described her reaction when coming to the Sibling Strong camp.

“I found my people,” she said.

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