Heidi Legler, a former youth in care attended Camp To Belong with her 3 siblings. Heidi is currently a Registered Nurse and was a member of CTB-WI’s Board of Directors in 2015.
On January 22, 1998, my sister Amber and I were both 10 years old. We’re not twins though – my birthday would be in another 12 days or so. We hated and loved each other most days (maybe sometimes more fights then hugs though!) My older brother Chris was 4 years older and my other brother Dustin was two years older. I remember that they had a matching comforter set. Dustin loved his legos and I would sometimes play with him. Chris loved his chemistry set and sometimes I would pretend to die from some concoction he had made. These were my siblings and we were a unit.
Reading this, you might think we were just an average family, but we had so much more going on. Our dad was in prison and not part of our life much anyhow, and it seemed like Mom was always on a lookout for another husband. She made some bad choices on the way, usually involving some combination of drugs and men. She loved us but wasn’t there for us – especially since she worked second shift.
As you can imagine, this didn’t make for the healthiest of childhoods. So when you go back to January 22, 1998, when Amber and I were both 10, we had to go to foster care. When I asked if my brother’s were coming to the same home as us, the social worker who I had met once the night before, shook his head no and then continued to talk to my Uncle about “transferring” to the next home.
In a matter of a day I went to bed knowing that my brothers and sister were just down the hall to having a social worker take Amber and me to foster care. We drove away from our brothers who liked legos and chemistry sets. Although we didn’t know at the time, the four of us would never live in a home where our bedrooms were just down the hall from each other, ever again.
What most people don’t know about siblings who end up in foster care is that they are often closer than perhaps your more healthy families. Since Mom was gone a lot, we relied on each other. When there were secrets going on, we turned to each other for the answers. When we were scared, we huddled together in the safety of our bedrooms. So it’s not “just” that they split us up, but they also split up the biggest part of our safety net.
We adjusted, of course. I think at some point in all of our lives we get used to not seeing each other very often. My siblings and I would talk on the phone (my sister and I still seemed to have more fights then hugs) but we never played Legos and the only time I ever saw a chemistry set was when I went to science class.
We went to a very small school where we were the only children in foster care. It was very hard at first, but then like life we got used to it and during some rare moments, we embraced it.
The hard part about our new life was that we didn’t know that Chris was finally doing well in school and that Dustin was on the basketball team. They lived in Illinois with an aunt and we saw each other once a month or less. It was nice but it was also hard because we were just becoming comfortable around each other again and catching up and then the weekend or short holiday would be over.
My foster mom had read about Camp to Belong before we ever came to her house. So that first summer we were at her house, she contacted them to see if all of us could go to camp together. My siblings and I would be able to go somewhere for a week and have fun together—simple as that.
Four siblings learning to live together and be kids after growing up fast and knowing too much can be a messy/tough/fun time. We found our bunks, then joined together in the cafeteria and ate together. There was laughing about stories that we had had to wait to tell each other. There were fights about not remembering something right or somebody wanted something and taking it from the other. The best part is we were four siblings acting like kids.
For that week we all experienced riding horses for the first time together. At night, we were sitting around a camp fire, Amber and I on the inside with our brothers on the out keeping us warm. We played arts and crafts and took long walks and just talked to each other.
One of the most meaningful parts of camp was making pillows for each other. We each made a pillow for one sibling and put a special message on them. We went to Camp to Belong for five years, so we have a complete set of those pillows now – one from each of us to the other.
The pillows were there for us when the week was over and we would go back to our separate lives. They helped us remember that we were not alone in all of this and that despite no longer being down the hall from each other, I was a part of them and they were a part of me.
Since that first summer together my brothers and sister and I went back for several more. With all of those memories I can smile and say that the first time I flew on a plane, they were with me. And again, the first time I rode a horse in the mountains, they were with me. The first time I went white water rafter, they were with me.
And it was like that for so many other sibling groups, too. For the first time, we weren’t the only ones in foster care, like we were at our school. We didn’t have to hide our parents’ mistakes because the other kids there also had parents who didn’t make great choices. So not only were we not alone from each other, we were also not along amidst this bigger group. We made instant friends, many of whom we saw in other years at camp. We belonged.