Empowering Youth in Child Welfare and Foster Care Through the Gift of Sleep-Away Camp

Many readers have experienced the magic of summer camp--days spent basking in the sun, swimming and splashing around the pool or lake, playing sports, running around, making new friends, and enjoying beautiful summer nights around a campfire telling ghost stories. Those were the days we lived for as children and the joys we hope our children will know as well. In addition, summer camp instills in children a reliance on daily structure and responsibility for the care of personal items and surroundings, lessons that sneak in amongst the fun and friends.

Unfortunately, not everyone has the opportunity to experience carefree summers or the lessons that camp holds. This is especially true for the thousands of children living in foster care or are otherwise involved in the child welfare system.

This is where The New York Foundling and Felix Organization come into play. Since 2006, these two organizations have given the gift of Camp Felix, a sleep-away in upstate New York, to over 1,000 children living in welfare or foster care. Camp Felix is the only overnight camp for children in the child welfare system near the New York City area that is operated by a child welfare agency at no cost to caregivers.

Designed to meet the needs of kids who have experienced abuse, neglect, and trauma at a young age, Camp Felix offers a wide range of sports, games, and activities, and addresses the social-emotional needs of campers while offering the support these children need to heal and grow.

Staff and counselors receive extensive training in order to work at Camp Felix. They create clear expectations and a sense of structure for campers. Kids who've been awakened at night, told to pack and move to a new home, now have a predictable schedule and a routine they can count on.

On the surface, casual observers might see the same activities they'd see at any other camp, but at Camp Felix, engagement requires more. Counselors focus on building campers' self-reliance and self-confidence, with the opportunity to gain a sense of accomplishment through simple, everyday experiences.

Campers receive different colored wristbands to identify how well they can swim and if they can swim in the deep end. As their swimming ability advances over the course of the summer, achievements are reflected in the brightly colored wristbands. It's gratifying and uplifting to see the pride these children feel when they "graduate" from the pool's shallow end to the deep end. As simple as this may seem, for the children The Foundling serves, this can be one of the first times they've received a tangible and public acknowledgement for something they've accomplished on their own and can be proud of.

Campers participate in Arts and Crafts, learn to play tennis, compete in basketball tournaments, play musical instruments, plus a host of other outdoor activities such as rock-climbing that are geared towards helping them overcome their fears, build confidence and form bonds with staff members and campers who share a similar background.

Indications of success can be found in the many volunteers at Camp Felix who were once campers themselves; 30 returning campers have become Counselors-in-Training and five volunteers are on their way to becoming full-time staff.

Camp Felix offers a vulnerable population the chance to thrive, grow, and be carefree kids. These children, perhaps more than anyone, have earned the right to have fun and learn that they can accomplish anything they set their minds to.