Camp infused with culture

Together, children adopted from abroad find a special sense of self


Henry Wylie loves all things Korean. From perfecting kimchi recipes to learning ancient folk tales, the 10-year-old absorbs each cultural tidbit like a sponge.

The love of his native culture has been encouraged by his adoptive parents, Mary Anne and Gill Wylie of Baltimore, who each summer send Henry and his brother, Gill, to an international culture camp where they join other adoptees in activities geared to foster appreciation for the adopted children's native cultures.

"It kind of makes me feel good inside," Henry said about the crafts, sports and other activities he took part in at a recent three-day gathering in Fairfax, Va., offered by the private Adoption Service Information Agency/Children's Home Society and Family Services. "It ... feels like you are sharing the culture and the happiness with everybody."

Nationwide, culture camps attract thousands of adopted children and parents, many geared toward those from a specific national or cultural background. Costs can range from $95 for day camps to more than $500 a week for sleep-away camps.

Pam Sweetser runs 12 culture camps in Colorado, catering to families with children from East India, China, Vietnam, Latin America, Russia and the Philippines. She also offers camps for African-American children.

"Adoptive parents love their children, but the one thing we can't give them is their heritage," said Sweetser, who has adopted children from India and Korea and whose camps draw 4,000 people each summer. "This way we are able to provide them with a little of that."

And the demand is growing. In 2005, Americans adopted 22,728 children from other nations, according to the State Department. China was the home nation for 7,906 of those children, the largest number, followed by Russia (4,639), Guatemala (3,783) and South Korea (1,630).

Gloria Hochman, director of communications for the Philadelphia-based National Adoption Center, said it is the adoptive parents' responsibility to make sure their children grow up feeling comfortable and knowing about their native culture.

"When you adopt across racial and cultural lines, you have to make sure that children have a strong sense of identity and their culture," Hochman said. "Parents need to recognize that there is a difference between them and their children."

Mary Anne Wylie said she and her husband knew that their children needed a strong sense of heritage but also realized that they needed some assistance achieving that goal. So when the couple found out about the preschool-through-sixth-grade culture camp in Fairfax, they immediately signed up their children.

"We knew that when you adopt, that is not the end of the story," said Wylie. "My husband and I can't give them what the people who run the camp give them."

Peter Kassen started the Maine China Culture Camp nine years ago after he and his wife talked with other adoptive parents about the issues associated with having Chinese children.

Kassen's camp attracts 30 to 50 families each year during a three-day gathering in Freedom, Maine. The camp, which costs $200 per participant, has typical camping activities, such as horseback riding, as well as cultural activities such as Chinese cooking, language classes and theater.

"Some will say they want their child to perpetuate the culture from where they came; others want to see other families like theirs," Kassen said. "Everyone wants to have fun."

Many culture camps work hard to ensure that counselors and staff reflect the heritage of their campers and are familiar with the issues that the campers face. Counselors and instructors at the Fairfax camp are either adoptees themselves -- some of them former campers -- or from the camper's native country.

Parents say such firsthand knowledge is invaluable. Sandy Mryncza of Baltimore said it is important for her children, Chloe Ober, 7, and Zeke Ober, 4, to interact with older adopted people.

Chloe "likes being with the older girls," said Mryncza. "She likes seeing how they dress. It helps her to see what she will look like and how she will act."

Amy Laakso, who has attended the camp since she was 9, works as the assistant director. She relishes being a role model for younger adoptees.

"They are looking into their future when they see us," said Laakso, who was born in Korea and lives in Annapolis with her adoptive parents. "It's nice to have counselors that look like you and who know what you are going through."

Anna Petrillo, education coordinator for the Fairfax camp, wishes she had attended a culture camp while growing up as an adopted Korean child in an Italian family in Greencastle, Pa.

"I grew up thinking that I was the only adopted person out there," she said. "The value I would have gotten out of it was meeting adopted kids sooner," said Petrillo. "Introducing cultural history, and background sooner helps you form a better confidence in where you are from and who you are."

Gill Wylie, 14, said he looks forward to camp each year because it reinforces a sense of self.

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