DEAN — Though the four girls share DNA, they live with four different families in four different towns.
But, for at least one week this summer, Della, 13; Martha,14; Katie, 15; and Aneshia, 17, are sharing digs and swapping stories.
In foster care for the past two years, the girls reunited recently at Kidz Konnection Retreat at the Beartooth Mountain Christian Ranch outside Dean. They are among the 97 foster and adoptive children — 22 of them are reunited siblings — to participate in the 10th such gathering organized by Forever Families of Billings.
“Some of these kids have experienced more in their short lives than we have in our lives combined,” said Echo Jamieson, of Forever Families. “They get to hang out and talk. They’ve been there.”
At first reluctant to speak, Aneshia holds back until the more outgoing Martha tells what the camp means to her.
“It’s sad for the other kids,” Martha said. “But it makes me feel good not to know that I’m the only one out there going through that.”
“You get a chance to be away from everything, to just hang out,” Katie adds.
Then, Aneshia’s words begin to flow. In detail, she tells of the abuse that she and her sisters experienced before landing in foster care.
Hanging out with kids who have similar stories makes it easier to share things that she otherwise wouldn’t.
The first Kidz Konnection Retreat was held a decade ago with the purpose of uniting siblings who had been separated through foster care or adoption, said Jeramy Elley, program director for the Beartooth Mountain Christian Camp.
Since then, enrollment has grown from a few dozen campers to nearly 100. The program has expanded to include foster and adoptive children who may or may not have siblings enrolled.
Like any group that comes to the camp, the boys and girls seem to thrive on games of paintball, trips down the zip line, horseback rides and attempts to summit the 55-foot climbing wall. But their camp experience goes beyond the typical activities.
“This camp meant the world to me,” said Shea, a former camper who now serves as junior counselor.
“It was the only time we (he and his brother and sister) would get to see each other.”
At the ripe age of 17, Shea exudes a sense of ease within his own skin. But that wasn’t always the case.
He was 4 when his mother “killed herself with drugs,” he said. After that, he and his older sister stole food from the grocery store to feed themselves and his younger brother.
Shea spent 12 years in foster care and group homes before being adopted in June 2009. Now a success story, he finished his junior year with a 3.8 GPA and plans to attend college next year on a wrestling scholarship.
“I think of it this way,” he said. “It’s not what happens to you; it’s how you deal with what happens to you.”
But, during the tough years and after, Shea looked forward to the Kidz Konnection Retreat. This summer, with neither his brother nor sister able to attend, he decided to return in a different capacity.
“I knew how much this camp meant to me, so I wanted to come share with the rest of the kids,” he said. “It’s good to be able to be there for them.”
This year at camp, Shea was shadowed by 12-year-old Landon. The younger boy reminds Shea of a younger version of himself, when he’d earned a reputation for stirring things up.
“We (foster kids) get a bad reputation for being in foster care and group homes,” he said. “Just because we’re in foster care or group homes, the kids are normal kids.”
Then Landon finishes the thought.
“They’ve just had bad things happen to them,” he said.
Contact Linda Halstead-Acharya at LHalstead-Acharya@billingsgazette.com or 657-1241.