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At the Snow Mountain Ranch, Colorado
Leceta Chisholm Guibault
This summer my family and I enjoyed the most wonderful experience together! We accepted an invitation to attend the Latin American Heritage Camp (LAHC) at the Snow Mountain Ranch near Fraser, Colorado. The theme was "Back to Your Roots" and the Guibaults -- that's us -- were invited to share our family experience with camp attendees. Well ... at first we were invited to share, but as plans for the camp progressed we quickly became "Keynote Family"! It was an honor to give a presentation.
Sticking with the theme, my husband Jean, Tristan (12, from Colombia), Kahleah (15, from Guatemala) and I prepared a PowerPoint presentation of photos portraying our experiences with birth family contact, foster family contact, birth country/heritage trips, birth family and foster family reunions and in-country humanitarian work. I am a firm believer that a picture is worth a thousand words and often our photos are able to demystify all of the above. Many questions are answered simply with photos.
We also decided to give a voice to many in our adoption constellation by quoting touching written words.
Kahleah's foster mother Morena: "I used to rock Kahleah and talk to her spirit and tell her how much we loved her, would not forget her and that God had a plan for her. Our family truly mourned when Kahleah left."With prepared presentation in hand we headed to Denver on the last Tuesday in June. It was suggested that we spend a couple of days in Denver to become better accustomed to the altitude before we headed further up into the Rocky Mountains and Snow Mountain Ranch. Upon arrival in Denver, the "Mile High City", we rented a vehicle and explored the city for two days. In the distance we could see the snow capped mountains and we were sure they were calling our names. We have traveled extensively but we (with the exception of Jean) have never visited our Canadian Rockies so we knew the Colorado Rockies would be a treat.
The co-directors of LAHC, Julia Hennelly and Mary-Pat Coughlin, graciously helped with all of our travel and camp plans starting the previous winter. All of the Colorado Heritage Camps are organized and run by volunteers, with the exception of camp executive director Pam Sweetser. These volunteers include adoptive parents, adult adoptees, Latino American counselors (some are adoptees), adoption professionals and members of Colorado's Latin American community. The commitment and dedication of many of these volunteers was obvious from the very beginning ... months before camp even began.
Registration for camp began Thursday afternoon. We headed off from Denver towards the mountains late morning, making a number of stops along the way. A drive that should take 2-3 hours can take all day due to the quaint little towns, breathtaking views, narrow roads, hairpin curves and must-have photo ops! The drive through the Rockies both to and from camp were in themselves worth the trip to Colorado. Although we get more than our fair share of snow here in Quebec ... sometimes lasting into early April, it still was nice to stop and enjoy a friendly snowball fight at the end of June! A little cold though on the bare toes through our sandals!
We arrived in the beautiful and thankfully warm Fraser Valley mid-afternoon. After a quick stop at the local grocery store to pick up a few food items to share at the evening's potluck for camp families, we easily found our way to the Snow Mountain Ranch. The ranch was a perfect setting for camp! Something for everybody!
As we approached the registration building we could see a number of families starting to arrive. There were close to 100 families from 17 states registered ... and one family from Canada :o) I personally was looking forward to meeting old friends and making new ones. Kahleah and Tristan were starting to look a little anxious as it's not always easy at their ages to attend such a large gathering when you don't know anyone ... not to mention the "pressure" of being Keynote Family! Mind you ... Tristan still wasn't sure what that meant!
Next thing we knew, as we entered the building two teenaged girls with the biggest smiles approached Kahleah. They asked if she was in the high-school group and if she was new. She said yes. They immediately introduced themselves. They were also 15 years old, one being born in Peru and the other in Chile. They told Kahleah she was going to "have a blast" and invited her to join them as they checked out the place ... and the boys! Tristan noticed a group of boys his age playing soccer and he quickly joined in. Next was Jean. A camp counselor had canceled and Jean was recruited! He couldn't have been more pleased. He's an active guy and jumped in with both feet. He became a counselor for the middle-school group ... Tristan's group. From that moment on we all felt welcomed and like we belonged.
After we registered and received our conference/camp bags we were off to find our cabin.
We were told we would be sharing a cabin with three other presenters and their families. The cabin was beautiful! Five bedrooms and as many bathrooms. Large kitchen and comfy living room. As it turned out, sharing a cabin was a real bonus. We met the most delightful and intriguing families! Astrid is an adult Colombian adoptee. She was facilitating different workshops for the middle school group, high school group and parents. Astrid was attending with her husband, adorable 3-year-old daughter and a 16-year-old exchange student/friend from Italy. Kahleah and Francesca hit it off immediately!
Later a Mexican-American family from Denver joined us. They had three children, one being a son Jose who was the same age as Tristan. They sized each other up, shook hands hello and became inseparable buddies during camp. Joe and Margie were invited to give Latin-American cooking lessons! The third family was a Latin-American family of musicians! Ed Contreras was not only the musical entertainment but he taught many of the children how to play percussion instruments. Needless to say, there was never a dull moment in our cabin.
Thursday night we all enjoyed the potluck dinner in the ranch park. Everyone was happy to finally be at camp and anticipating the next three days of workshops and activities. As the kids got to know their new friends and Jean was being prepared to be a camp counselor, I set off to mingle. I did reunite with some old friends and happily did make a lot of new ones too! I met so many listmates from the Guatemala-Adopt email list (home.earthlink.net/~gadopt/gafaq.htm) and it was fun getting to know them and their families. After dinner there was an informative orientation meeting for new families. Friday was going to be a big day!
Friday morning, camp families gathered for the Opening Ceremonies. We were treated to a "Parade of Nations" by the children. Each Latin American birth country was applauded as children born in particular countries marched in together waving their birth countries flag proudly ... Ecuador, Mexico, Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, Honduras, El Salvador, Paraguay, U.S.-born Latin-Americans, siblings and with the largest representation by far ... Guatemala! To the music of their birth-countries playing, all the children paraded to the main stage while the parents beamed ... cameras clicking and flashing. It was a heartwarming sight.
After lunch Jean, Kahleah, Tristan and I presented our Keynote Address. We shared our "Back to Our Roots" story with the parents, middle school and high school groups. I had to take the opportunity to publicly thank my children and their foster and birth families for allowing their very personal experiences to be shared within the adoption community. They are my heroes ... my teachers. We received touching and encouraging feedback after the presentation and throughout the camp. The best part was having families open up and share their stories and experiences with me. Kahleah felt the same way. She had great chats with her peers afterwards and most were fascinated with her maintained connections and travels to her birth country. We also met a family after our presentation with three children, birth siblings, who spent time at the same orphanage as Tristan in Medellin, Colombia. They were older when adopted and had many memories. They were thrilled to see photos from Tristan's visit to La Casita de Nicolas in 2004 and recognized many people in the photos. We saw an immediate bond building between Tristan and the two older brother's ages 14 and 16. From that moment on Tristan became an honorary "brother"!
With our presentation finished it was time to break into groups. My children signed up for Latin American dance classes, percussion, art, canoeing, orienteering, the Wall of Fame ... everything! Jean was busy with his new job too! I continued to mingle and participate in workshops.
My workshops were all panel discussions. We discussed various experiences and opinions on open adoption, birth and foster family contact, search, reunion and birth country travel. My experience was, "been there, done that!" As is my usual "modus operandi", I found it best when discussing the issues to stick to personal experience as opposed to my personal opinion. I shared, I listened, I learned. As parents we were all there to share, listen and learn.
Friday night I continued to mingle as Tristan attended "Survivor: The Rainforest". Let's just say he was pretty thrilled by his limbo skills and the fact that he ate "dead worms and chocolate covered ants!" Kahleahs' group spent the evening at the "Games Gathering". A mini and age-appropriate Casino was set up and the teens got to know each other better by playing society, board and card games. It was true! They were having a blast!
On Saturday Kahleah in particular was anxious to get to her workshop "More Than Me". The middle and high school students were given the opportunity to "give back" by putting together hygiene and medical kits to be distributed in Guatemala by the Common Hope organization. This was right up Kahleah's alley! Tristan was looking forward to canoeing with his friends.
Both kids participated in workshops with Colombian adult adoptee and adoption professional Astrid Dabbeni on adoption issues, roots and the adoptee's perspective. Something that really touched Tristan was the fact that Astrid, who was adopted at about age five with her older sister, didn't know her birth-date or exact age. Tristan told me that Astrid said, "I tell people they should always be nice to me because TODAY could be my birthday!" He was fascinated with the thought of not knowing if he might not really be 12 years old ... but maybe only 11 ... or 13 or 14! He also gave a lot of thought to the idea of being adopted with a biological sibling.
Kahleah couldn't wait to tell me about her workshop with Astrid. They watched a documentary about transracial adoption from the point of view of the adoptee. It was very powerful and left no stone unturned! Kahleah told me that the discussion afterwards was lively. Kahleah was mostly struck by the fact that although most shared similar experiences (adopted, Latin American, trans-racial, search for identity, closed adoptions, racism ... ) their opinions ran the gamut. Kahleah sat with me and shared, "Mom! Did you know that some of the adoptees hate their birthparents? Some hate their parents!!!! Some hate being adopted!" She told me, "I knew that as adopted persons we don't necessarily all think the same way but I was surprised by many of the strong opinions and anger."
An observation I was able to make, thanks to Kahleah's willingness to share, was the lack of communication between some adoptive parents and their adopted teens. Of course this is no surprise! This issue is pretty mainstream ... but ... it's still a loss. What I often hear is, "My child/teen is not interested in birthfamily/birth country/adoption". What Kahleah hears is, "I can't talk to my parents about birthfamily/birth country/adoption".
Back to the fun! Saturday evening was the best. All the families attended a Fiesta! The children were invited to wear something from their birth countries, as were the parents. The children got to show off their dance and drumming talents by performing in their groups for their proud families. I discovered that my daughter can really move her hips and my son has a passion for Latin drumming that was not evident before camp! After the performances Latin American deserts were served and we all shook our bon-bons to the beat of the Ed Conteras band. What a sight to see! Toddlers up to grandparents dancing together! Everyone was smiling and laughing. At that moment we were all family by adoption.
By 11 p.m. we had lost the little kids and their parents/grandparents but the high school and middle school kids were not slowing down. They hated to see the Fiesta end. They had all become so close and they were dreading the next morning's Closing Ceremony and "good-bye". Later at the cabin both Kahleah and Tristan were begging to return to camp next year. BEGGING! They talked about the fun they had and the great friends they had made. Jean and I were feeling the same way.
Sunday and the closing ceremony arrived too soon. No one wanted camp to end. During the closing a slideshow was presented of photos taken during camp. Not a dry eye in sight as we laughed through our tears! A few of the photos can be viewed here: www.heritagecamps.org/SlideShows/LAHC%202006/flash_detected.html.
Then ... it was time to say good-bye. Hugs, kisses, last photos and an exchange of email and home addresses. There were also promises to return. In many ways, to return to LAHC will be like "Going Back to Our Roots".
Latin American Heritage Camp 2006, "Back to your Roots", was attended by 82 families -- 325 participants from all across the country -- who came to celebrate Latin American food, culture and adoption from June 30 to July 2, 2006.
Copyright 2006 Leceta Chisholm Guibault, firstname.lastname@example.org
First published at Family Helper, www.familyhelper.net, on Oct. 31, 2006.
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