When children are put into foster care, they are often separated not just from their parents but also from their siblings. That can add an extra level of trauma for a child who is already experiencing great upheaval and distress.
With that in mind, Samii Emdur ’08, an East Stroudsburg University graduate with a degree in nursing, founded Camp to Belong River Valley in 2019. The program reunites siblings in foster care for a week of summer camp in Berks County, PA. Emdur, a pediatric oncology and bone marrow transplant nurse at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, witnessed how important siblings could be to each other when a family breaks down.
“They have a shared trauma,” she says. “They came from the same household and a lot of times they’re the only ones who know what each other truly experienced.”
Often a foster child’s only contact with siblings is during sporadic visits at places like a McDonald’s or a state office building, Emdur says. The first Camp to Belong River Valley gave 20 siblings a week to reconnect, enjoy the outdoors and each other. Emdur said some children arrived at camp with a tough, guarded demeanor, afraid to be vulnerable.
“Then the second day of camp, you can literally see their guard coming down,” she said. “And they bond with their sibling and they become inseparable. It’s a pretty magical moment.”
Potential campers are referred to her by state agencies and CHOP’s Fostering Health Program. Most of the children come from Eastern Pennsylvania and New Jersey but the camp will accept kids from any state, especially if they have a local sibling. Biological and foster parents can apply to enroll their kids and Emdur meets each camper ahead of time to make sure they will be safe and benefit from attending the camp.
After its first successful year, Camp to Belong River Valley held a couple of indoor swim parties to reunite more brothers and sisters. When the pandemic hit in early 2020, the group had to switch gears. Instead of in-person camping, the nonprofit organization sent “Camp-in-a-Box” activities to 50 foster kids in 2020 and to 100 children in 2021. Emdur, who lives in Mullica Hill, N.J., has high hopes that they will be able to hold a week-long in-person camp this coming summer at Camp Conrad, a YMCA camp near Reading, PA.
“We’re a fully volunteer-run organization and all the kids can attend camp free of charge,” she says. The camp is the local branch of a Camp to Belong network that has 11 locations in the United States and one in Australia. Emdur chose the name Camp to Belong River Valley because it serves children on both sides of the Delaware River in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
Emdur’s group is a 501 (c) (3) nonprofit, responsible for its own fundraising and volunteer recruitment. To date, most of the funds have been donated by Emdur’s friends and family but the group had a couple of “dine and donate” fundraisers before the pandemic hit. She is learning grant writing.
It is no surprise to Dr. Laura Waters, ESU associate professor and chair of the Department of Nursing, that her former student has taken on such an innovative, compassionate endeavor. Waters says Emdur was a high-energy student in the nursing program who gravitated toward helping children in need.
“She really is a loving person who wants to put a good, positive light into the world,” Waters said.
Dr. Denise Seigart, dean of the College of Health Sciences, lauded the camp’s mission of reconnecting siblings in foster care.
“This is a really fantastic program that she has developed,” Seigart said. “Her interest in pediatrics and fostering these relationships is really commendable.”
Before launching the nonprofit, Emdur had seen the benefits of summer camp while working at one for children with cancer and one for kids with inflammatory bowel disease.
Many of the Camp to Belong River Valley activities are typical summer camp fare, such as games and crafts. But it also holds signature events designed especially for foster children. During a single day they celebrate every camper’s birthday, in which siblings bake each other a cake and pick out a gift for their sister or brother at the camp store.
But it’s also the small interactions that matter to the kids.
“I think a lot of the kids feel that people take for granted being able to sit around a dinner table and share a meal,” Emdur said. “People take for granted being able to give your sibling a hug at night and say ‘I’ll see you in the morning.’ What these kids have learned through their life experience is to not take that for granted.”
Emdur’s work caught the attention of “The Drew Barrymore Show,” which filmed a segment on Emdur in early February; she was one of Barrymore’s “Drew-Gooders.” The host surprised Emdur with a five-day beach vacation in Fort Myers, FL for Emdur, her four-year-old adopted daughter Jordan, and her six-month-old foster child. She is taking Jordan to meet her two biological brothers there.
Emdur grew up in a tight-knit family in Cherry Hill, N.J., the oldest of four siblings all born within five years.
“I knew from second grade on that I wanted to be a pediatric nurse, specifically at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia,” she says. “Once I made my mind up in second grade, I never wavered from that plan.”
“I applied to multiple schools but was drawn to ESU for multiple reasons,” she says. “I felt like it was a big enough campus where I would have diverse experiences in meeting people and experiencing different things. But it was still small enough that I didn’t feel like I was just going to be a number at the university.”
She embraced her classes and plunged into campus activities including the Outings Club, women’s rugby and recreational soccer, teambuilding and leadership events, as well as SNAP, the Student Nurses Association.
ESU’s nursing program was tough but her class was tight-knit with students spending many hours together in clinical rotations and studying.
“I felt like I really knew my peers and my professors on a pretty intimate level,” she said. The professors “were very approachable and they went above and beyond to help us study.”
Emdur says she loves her work at CHOP and being a parent and foster parent. And her motto?
She laughs, then says: “Live life to the fullest now and I’ll sleep when I’m old.”