Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Weekend Summer Camp

So it's hard to sum up my weekend, other than I was so tired yesterday I was amazed I didn't fall right asleep during my evening dive class! I volunteered at a "summer camp" for foster children (tweens and teens only) who are separated by the foster process (so siblings live in different homes, mostly in different areas and sometimes even on different islands). Hawaii has many large families and if children have to go into foster care it's often impossible to find somewhere that will take 3+ children, so they often have to be split up, and sometimes will not be able to see each other for many reasons. Project Visitation brings those siblings together for once a month visits with volunteers and this once a year camp for the older children (we had from 9-17). 

So on friday early afternoon I went to pick up two boys who live close to me and take them down to the "camp". The camp this year was sponsored by one of the Waikiki hotels, so we were actually camping in a wing of the hotel - staying in rooms and having a conference room as our base. It was certainly different! Each family got it's own hotel room and a volunteer (or two) stayed in the rooms with them. I was given a family of three for the weekend - an 11 yr old boy and a 14 yr old girl who live together, and then their 17 yr old brother who lives on the other side of the island. They are new to the project and I will be teaming up with 2 others to run their monthly visits too, so it was a good time to get to know them. We are not told their "stories" for privacy reasons, which I have mixed feelings about. I feel that knowing a little (so not every detail) about how they ended up where they are would have helped me get to know them better and understand a little more. 

The younger two arrived first and the older brother didn't join us until later on friday evening (as he had summer school), so I spent a few hours with them on their own. Both very sweet and very shy, we went out to dinner at Jimmy Buffets, a theme restaurant in Waikiki that had waves and lava coming out of the walls and women on stilts in hula skirts passing out balloon creations. Very fun. The young boy soon warmed up to me a little and clung on to me for most of the night, the young girl, also very shy, did come out and speak out a little. The older brother then arrived as we went to play "glow in the dark" mini-golf. A very tall skinny teenager, very "cool" looking and seeming bored already, again also very very quietly spoken. I knew a little about him in that he didn't want to come to camp, but was pushed into it so his brother and sister could come. I don't know how much people pushed, or whether he was forced into it, but either way, that definitely set his tone. That said in the mini-golf his face lit up as his brother scored a hole in one and he did get into it, it was very sweet to see. I don't know when the last time they had seen each other was, they were very quiet and we were told not to ask only to listen if they told you anything about their background. 

And then as we walked back to the hotel I noticed on his hands and arms he had several gang tattoos. Some generic, some from specific gangs here in Oahu. We don't have major gang issues like some places, but there are a number of gangs here who cause trouble, fueled by poverty in many areas and the lack of jobs. So here I had a quietly spoken and polite 17yr old who is either falling or has fallen down the wrong path, and yet whose face just lights up as his tickles his brother and sister out of bed in the morning. It was heart wrenching in many ways and this is where I really felt I wanted to know what was going on. All three of them had obviously been brought up right - they were very polite (the 17yr old even asked me every time he wanted to go to the bathroom!), they listened to instruction, they looked out for each other and obviously adored each other, they came to camp prepared (some kids are from such poor backgrounds we had to buy them swimsuits and clothes) - how did they end up in foster care?

I think it went well with the kids, we seemed to enjoy each others company and other than the 17yr old I think we bonded well. The younger boy clung whenever we did something new, but once he warmed up he was on fire and turned into a very energetic boy, always wanting to show you something (forward rolls in the ocean, racing on the paddleboards, drawing his t-shirt etc). The funniest thing was in the ocean - we had a whole beach day and were divided between free swim, canoe rides, paddleboarding and surfboard shaping (40 minutes in each). We were first up for free swim and he wouldn't swim without me holding his hand. We then did a race and I swam with him holding his hand. We assumed he couldn't swim well and just encouraged him. Next race he shot off and was around the marker person before I could even hold his hand. He was just shy, after that he was rolling in the water, swimming underwater, sneaking up on us and splashing us - funny! 

The 17yr old just didn't settle into any of it, and i'm not convinced he would with anyone there, but he did respect me, didn't give me much trouble and we talked a little about how he'd made his brother and sister really happy that he'd come and he agreed with that. He did try and consistently splash me in the pool on the last afternoon, and i'm taking that as a good sign....:0) I do feel a little like he actually needs a male figure and would have responded better with one of the guys helping out, but either way it was really emotional seeing this tough 17yr old playing ball with his siblings, and actually smiling when he thought you weren't watching. It's in there inside him, and you just ache for that side to win out. 

So for them they got to see their siblings, for me I learnt a lot about the kids in the Hawaii system, I met a whole new group of people, though exhausting it was rewarding to see each of my kids excel at something different (the younger boy it was the water sports, the girl was a hiking all star and the older boy was cute with his siblings and is an awesome artist), and I even learnt to stand-up paddleboard, which I have wanted to try for a while. 

So that was my weekend. 


PleaseRecycle said...

You are awesome! I bet those kids have a lot of resentment about what has happened to them and it must be hard for them to open up. Good job!

Mollie is off at camp now- I am so curious how she's doing!

nicola said...

i am so impressed you did that. you are truly an amazing person, rhian.
one of the most freely giving people i am honored to know.
ps. bella asked me yesterday when she gets to see you again and said she misses you.

bsa said...

I echo the 'amazing' and 'awesome comments! You really help us be better than we are! Wa hoo!

RGW said...

It's really not that amazing though, I used to do this stuff a lot before grad school, so I feel more honored to be able to do it again. Children can be both the most rewarding (when they do well in their lives) and the most heartbreaking (when they go down the wrong path) to work with, but I like doing it because there is a chance to make a huge difference, and I enjoy being around kids who make me smile (like the 11yr old who was so goofy when he opened up!), so it's a two way street. You also never know when you yourself might need the help of strangers, so give what you can when you can.

RGW said...

And I miss Bella too! Come to Hawaii anytime....:0)

DDd said...

It sounds like a great program. I applaud you for taking time out of your busy busy life to consistently go out of your way to help others. You rock. I wonder if they have programs like that in DC... where the gangs are more than a nuisance.