DECKERS — Lexi White and Darlene Jones have the same laugh, the same round cheeks that widen across their faces when they smile. They both fidget by twisting their fingers in their hair.
Lexi, 14, is the enthusiastic sister, talking fast about catching minnows in the camp lake and falling off a horse during a trail ride. Darlene, 18, is the quiet one, managing to get out about one sentence before Lexi starts chatting again.
The two girls didn’t know any of this about each other until last winter, when they reconnected after 13 years — thanks to a “people you may know” Facebook suggestion noticed by a friend of their deceased biological mother. They were split up in the foster care system when Lexi was an infant. One sister moved to New Mexico, while the other stayed in Colorado.
But this August, the sisters were trying to pack as much bonding as they could into a week of summer camp in the craggy mountains near Deckers, a tiny, fly-fishing haven along the South Platte River. For one week each summer, the YMCA camp up a hilly, dirt road in Douglas County becomes Camp to Belong, reuniting siblings split up by foster care.
“Dibs on the top bunk,” Lexi said as she stepped into their cabin. Two days later, they were still laughing about how a raccoon made itself comfortable on Darlene’s swim towel as the campers were trying to sleep, until a camp counselor scared the animal away by waving a flashlight and shouting. The girls went to a carnival for the first time, a traveling attraction with cotton candy and a dunk tank that set up on the hill above camp for one evening. They overdid it on cinnamon rolls for breakfast in the mess hall.
“It’s so weird because I’ve gone my entire life without a sister and then, like meeting her was like this added piece in my life that made the puzzle make sense,” said Lexi, who is a high school freshman.
They always knew each other existed but didn’t know where. The girls met for the first time on the day this spring that Darlene graduated from high school in New Mexico. A few months earlier, on Christmas Eve, their parents had given each of them a gift — a photograph of each other. And a phone number.
Darlene dialed Lexi almost immediately. They talked for more than two hours. “That was so awkward. And so great,” Lexi said. “We had to catch up on the 13 years we missed.” Mostly, they chatted about their lives, school, friends, theater for Lexi and comic books and horticulture for Darlene. They avoided talking too much about their mother who couldn’t take care of them, a woman Lexi doesn’t remember. That subject makes her cry.
Lexi was adopted as a baby by a friend of their biological mother and had a stable, happy childhood with her adoptive mom. Darlene, though, lived with aunts on and off when her father was working multiple jobs, ended up back in foster care for a while in elementary school, and was later able to move in with her dad in New Mexico when he got his own apartment and car.
After camp, the sisters plan to keep in touch via Skype, perhaps settle in with a bowl of ramen while they watch chef Gordon Ramsay cooking competitions on TV as they did together this summer. They also want to write letters, real ones on paper, because Lexi wants to have keepsakes she can hold.
The sibling relationship is the longest of all human relationships. “We are raised together, we share memories,” said Stacey Sanders, who helped start the first Camp to Belong in Colorado in 2013. “Our identity is tied into our sibling relationship and our childhood, good or bad.”
About 6,000 kids and teens are in foster care in Colorado, and hundreds of them — the exact number isn’t tracked by the state — are separated from their brothers and sisters, whether permanently or temporarily.
Camp to Belong was created to get them back together, even if for only a week. A highlight of the weekend is a birthday party, a day to exchange gifts and eat cake with a brother or sister who lives in another town or another state. About 40 children attended the camp this summer, kids whose foster parents, caseworkers or guardians ad litem learned about it via social media or other connections and allowed them to go.
Some aren’t allowed to come, and a common reason is that they have a “trauma bond” with their sibling, Sanders said. It means the relationship is a source of struggle, tied to traumatic events of the past that cause kids to act out or regress.
“My question then is, ‘What are you doing to work on that? Are they getting therapy together?’” said Sanders, who decided after the second summer of camp, in 2014, to create an organization that would reunite siblings throughout the year. It’s called Elevating Connections, and, as its executive director, she pushes the child welfare system to put more emphasis on sibling connections.
Camp to Belong had about 40 kids this summer, as many as Sanders could take based on the number of counselors and volunteers who offered to work. Not every kid at the camp lives in a foster home — some have been adopted or are living with biological parents or relatives — but all are separated from at least one of their brothers or sisters.
Two “sibling enhancement specialists,” who are licensed clinical social workers, are at camp in case anyone needs to work through any issues. Sanders said that as she develops programs for the kids, or advocates for them to policymakers, she has three kids in particular in her head. The siblings, who were 8, 9 and 10 years old when they were separated, reunited at the first Camp to Belong in 2013.
“They were so fiercely protective of each other, while at the same time, they called each other out on their crap,” Sanders said, recalling how she watched them build a more normal sibling bond over the span of camp. Basically, they started acting like normal siblings — it was them against the world but they also fought with each other.
Sanders watched, too, as a teenage brother and sister got into a fight during the annual birthday party last summer. They two hadn’t seen each other for about two years. During the party, they stepped outside and started to shout. Sanders stayed close, in case they needed her. But they didn’t.
“You’re not hearing me. This is what I need from you,” she recalled one saying to the other.
For Sanders, it was an eye-opening moment. “They didn’t need my help,” she said. “I was like, ‘This is why camp exists, to let them figure it out, to get through the sibling stuff. Let them figure out how to fight over a towel or whatever it is and then get back in the lake and be friends again.”
For Trey and Haley, whose last names are not used in this story at their parents’ request, camp is one of about three times a year they get to hang out. Haley, 8, follows Trey, 12, everywhere, hugging him for no reason as they walk or line up outside the giant cabin that is the dining hall to sing songs before lunch. Her arms reach around his waist and he pats her on the head.
Trey, a seventh grader, has lived in multiple foster homes and treatment centers over the years, while Haley, a third grader, was adopted soon after going into foster care. The last time they lived together was about four years ago. Before camp, they hadn’t seen each other since Christmas, even though they live only about an hour apart in the north Denver suburbs.
“My mom is never going to see me again,” said Trey, who shares much more than asked, accustomed to years of spewing his life story to caseworkers.
When it comes to describing what it’s like to go to camp with Haley, the boy’s words are profound. “She is one of the only people who knows exactly what it’s like to be me,” he said. “She’s been in my shoes and knows the same things.”
The scarcity of Trey and Haley’s visits is pretty typical for kids in the foster system. A group of current and former foster youth, called Project Foster Power, persuaded state lawmakers this year to pass a Foster Youth Sibling Bill of Rights. The new law states that children in foster care have the right to call and email each other, and to know if a brother or sister is adopted or switches foster homes.
For many of them, all they have is camp, which begins with a bumpy, dusty bus ride that’s a bit awkward, as if the kids sharing seats are making a new friend instead of sitting with their brother or sister.
“I have two siblings and I can’t imagine being separated from them,” said camp director Mike Rosales. “It doesn’t seem fair. They didn’t choose this.”