About 85 foster kids separated from their siblings had the opportunity to reconnect at a four day camp where they were able to participate in activities together. Sisters Rachel and Rosa scurry through an inflatable obstacle course together enjoying their time together. Christian Rodas

By J. Harry Jones5:56 p.m.Aug. 8, 2014  UT San Diego

JULIAN — Siblings separated by the county’s foster care system are being reunited this weekend at a four-day summer camp in the mountains near Julian.

About 85 kids are participating in Camp Connect, a joint venture between the county’s Child Welfare Services office and the nonprofit Promises2Kids, which raises the funds, organizes the events and provides the volunteers who make it all happen.

Like most summer camps, kids spend the day rock climbing, playing volleyball, horseback riding or goofing around in the swimming pool. But the experiences mean so much more, campers and officials said.

“I’m with somebody that I really love and … with people who love me,” said Stephany, a 14-year-old camper catching up with older sister Ruth on Friday. (Organizers said last names of campers couldn’t be released, by court order.)

County officials say they try hard to keep siblings in the foster system together, but for various reasons it’s sometimes not possible. Of the 3,100 foster children in the system about 500 don’t live together.

“For a lot of our kids they’ve already lost parents, neighbors, their school, and to then be separated from their siblings is devastating to them,” said Margo Fudge, the program director and adoptions manager for Child Welfare Services.

“There is research that shows that kids who remain connected to their siblings while in foster care have far better outcomes. They are more likely to stay in their placement, more likely to graduate, more likely to have higher self esteem and less likely to use drugs and be incarcerated.”

Ruth and Stephany may not know about the research, but they know camp is a good thing.

The sisters were separated six years ago. Ruth, who turned 18 on Friday, lives in La Mesa while Stephany lives in a group setting in Chula Vista.

“I feel free every time I come out,” Stephany said Friday as she waded in a swimming pool at the camp held at the Whispering Winds Catholic Conference Center off Harrison Grade Road.

“I don’t feel like there are a lot of things I have to worry about. I don’t feel as stressed. I feel relaxed and get to share my feeling with the person I trust the most in the whole world.”

“What I like best about the camp,” said Ruth “is getting the chance to influence her in a good way for a little while — to be an example to her because I can’t really do that while she’s in another place. I like coming up here because I get to spend time with Stephany and it’s fun. It’s a way to get away from all our problems at home and just have fun.”

Stephany said she especially likes getting to sleep with her older sister.

“It’s a way to get away from all the negativity going around with all the other kids,” she said. “My sister always protects me and looks out for me.”

Camp Connect is in its seventh year and is funded this year ($50,000) by donations the ICW Group and it’s CEO, Kevin Prior.

Prior said the camp “instills hope in the lives of foster children that need it most.”

“Due to circumstances beyond their control, these kids are separated from their siblings and miss out on a crucial nurturing foundation. For many of us at that age, our brother or sister is our other half, and I’m proud to help support Promises2Kids’ efforts to keep these vital unions alive.”

Promises2Kids, formerly known as the Child Abuse Prevention Foundation, has been making the camp happen from the beginning and also pays for other foster-sibling outings throughout the year such as trips to Sea World, the zoo and the beach.

The organization’s director of community outreach, Stephanie Trolinger, said about 95 volunteers are helping out at Camp Connect, which ends Sunday. Many come back year after year, as do the kids, and say they have developed relationships with the campers that both cherish.

Fudge, the camp director, said the importance of the program hit home before the first Camp Connect even began.

“The first year we did a send off in a parking lot and a boy came up to us and said he wasn’t getting on ‘the stupid bus. I’m not going to your stupid camp,’” Fudge recalled. “He said his brother wasn’t there and he wasn’t going to go if he wasn’t there. As it turned out his brother was just feet away from him and they didn’t recognize each other.”

“To us that was very powerful and we vowed that shouldn’t happen,” she added. “These kids have been through so much.”

Trolinger said the need and importance of the bonding is brought home every day.

“Just this morning one of the kids shared a connection with his volunteer,” she said. “He was asked what he would do today if he could do absolutely anything.

“He said ‘I would have doughnuts with my brothers.’”

For more information about Promises2Kids and how you can donate or volunteer go to www.promises2kids.org on the web or call Trolinger at (858) 427-1106.