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The longtime tradition of summer camp is a staple for many American households. Campers build independence as they master outdoor challenges of hiking through the woods and canoeing on the river, solidify friendships as they roast marshmallows around the campfire and, ultimately, build a bank of memories that last a lifetime.

For University of Wisconsin Oshkosh alumna Kate Bauer ’18 and her husband Rob Bauer, co-directors of Camp To Belong (CTB), summer is one of the most magical times of the year. The two operate a unique week-long camp and host other events throughout the year that bring together biological siblings separated in the foster care system.

“Today, approximately 7,400 Wisconsin youth are in out-of-home foster care and roughly half of those youth are also separated from their siblings,” Rob said. “While many of us take for granted the opportunity to share meals and play games, the kids we serve at Camp To Belong cherish these small moments that they do not always have.”

The Fond du Lac pair brought the national programming to Wisconsin in 2015, after seeing the positive impact that Camp To Belong-Colorado had on campers and counselors alike.

In addition to running the camp, Kate earned her master’s degree at UW Oshkosh in professional counseling in the clinical mental health track and will begin working in September at the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation in Fond du Lac. Rob is a foster care supervisor for Fond du Lac County and has worked in the social work field for more than 20 years.

Family time

Nearly 60 campers and 32 counselors came from all areas of the state to CTBhosted at Camp Anokijig nestled in the Kettle Moraine forest.

Priscilla, Riaha, Ben, Pierre and Jackson are five of seven siblings split between three families in different cities. Their foster and adoptive families work hard to make sure they see each other at least once a month, but nothing compares to the uninterrupted time they get together at the camp.

“It’s fun. Being able to hang out with your siblings when you don’t get to see them that often makes you feel like a family. Even when you get angry or upset, you are at least together, then you quickly let it go and go play a game,” Riaha said.

Her sister, Priscilla, said she feels comfortable at camp.

“It brings a lot of people together and you get to meet a lot of kids. Camp is a place without judgement. The other kids here understand what you have gone through and appreciate your situation,” she said.

Camp counselors

While in the professional counseling program, Kate tapped many of her classmates to volunteer as camp counselors, promising them that it would be an experience they would soon not forget.

Alumna and classmate Jennifer Menke ’18, of Fond du Lac, pursued the field of counseling because she knows from personal experience how powerful counseling was in her own childhood. It was her desire to pay that success forward that led her to accept Kate’s invitation to serve as a CTB camp counselor.

“Most of these campers have been taken out of homes because of situations of abuse, addiction or neglect. As counselors, we are here to foster their connection and forge that sibling bond. One of my campers checks on his sisters multiple times prior to going to bed, and when you remember this is luxury in his everyday life, it solidifies why this camp is so important,” Menke said.

Emily Olson ’18, of Oshkosh, wants to work as a counselor in a school district. Preparation for her career path has included volunteering at camps around the world, including a couple in India and Japan. She said Camp To Belong is different.

“There has been a level of bonding between the children and between the counselors that really reinforces the value of that human connection,” she said. “Camp To Belong allows them to just be kids, to just be siblings and to just be themselves. I value the difference of this camp.”

Next steps

Kate and Rob continue to grow the CTB experience. They serve all 72 counties of Wisconsin and hope to continue to inspire others to give back to their communities.

Volunteerism is in my heart and I feel fulfilled when giving to others. I have inspired my children to give back, and it is my hope that when separated siblings experience our camp they too will understand the importance of connection and giving of oneself,” she said.

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