The summer sun was gleaming off the bus that would take two biological brothers in foster care to a place where their sister awaited them.
A foster child herself, she was at the new Camp To Belong that day in 2019. The three siblings were hesitant when they met the first day of camp, but by day two, they were attached at the hip, camp Director and Founder Samii Emdur recalled.
“They were absolutely living evidence that this place needs to exist for a reason, because I saw it right before my eyes,” she added. “We were able to bring siblings together to create memories. I knew that camp had a lasting impact on this family.”
Camp To Belong River Valley is a 501c nonprofit that was created between 2018 and ‘19, with a mission to reconnect siblings in foster care and nurture a lifelong bond. With Emdur’s own experience as a foster care parent, she founded a program to help children conquer their hardships.
Emdur was licensed as a foster parent in 2012, and having grown up with three boisterous siblings, she saw how each foster child reacted to being separated from sisters and brothers except in arranged meetings.
“We can bring these children together in a higher-quality place outside of the McDonald’s playground,” Emdur noted. “Also give them a longer duration, where they can build really deep connections and develop a strong foundation.”
Creating a program where all foster children can gather was hardly easy for Emdur, but she managed through connections she had in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. She also gets referrals from the Child Protection and Permanency division of the state’s Department of Children and Families.
“A lot of times our referrals will come in and from the caseworkers, or the families themselves, they’ll go onto our website to register,” Emdur explained. “There’s a lot of questions for screening them and making sure they are in fact in foster care, that they have a sibling, and they will be safe in this environment.”
Caregivers for the foster children are at the camp for supervision and comfort, and the children’s biological parents, depending on the circumstances, are welcome.
The program usually runs for a week in the summer, with foster children transported from the Pennsylvania and New Jersey area to participate in a sleep-away camp. But because of COVID restrictions, camp this year will be a one-day event in Cherry Hill on July 31. Children will still have transportation and the two-hour camp will include a variety of crafts and food.
Emdur and her team are made up of six camp board members and 30 volunteers, each of whom participate in a training course of two half days to learn about trauma and other scenarios they may face. The board gets support from fundraisers and donations from the community or other organizations.
“All of the kids come free of charge; we would never want to … prohibit a child from coming,” Emdur said. “We have also been supported by some donors throughout the year, like Rector Car and Renewal by Andersen Windows.”
To supply the proper amount of food and material for the camp costs about $1,200 per child, but for Emdur, finding funds for the program is worth the effort because the camp can change children’s lives.
The Voorhees resident and Cherry Hill native graduated from Cherry Hill East, then went on to attend East Stroudsburg University in Pennsylvania for nursing. After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in 2008, she got a job at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia as a pediatric nurse.
“I had a patient who was in foster care, and that patient had asked me if I would be her foster mom, to which I knew I couldn’t because of professional boundaries,” Emdur remembered. “But that got me motivated. It was something I already knew I wanted to do since I was in the second grade.”
Emdur fostered a little girl whom she later adopted, Jordan Emdur. She was also separated from her siblings through the foster-care system.
“Every human has that innate desire to have a biological connection” Emdur said. “I’m her mama; it’s taken a village for her to come to me. But keeping that connection with some of her biological relatives includes her siblings, and there’s a desire for most people to know where they come from, and (to share) that connection with siblings.”
Although Camp To Belong will run for one day this summer, Emdur hopes to have a weekend trip in the fall.
For more information, go to https://www.ctbrivervalley.org/.