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Helping siblings in foster care play, create and connect at camp

Instead of soaking up some sun at the beach for a week in late August, former Manayunk resident Jennifer Gleason was sleeping in cabins and showering in cold water at Sibling Connection’s Annual “Camp to Belong Massachusetts,” a program aimed at reuniting children who have been separated by placement in foster care. 

At Camp Taconic in the Berkshire region of Massachusetts, Gleason served as a camp counselor for about 85 kids between the ages of eight and 20. She began volunteering for the program when she moved to Manayunk in 2008. 

Connecting kids who’ve been separated

Child welfare, foster care and adoption issues have always been a strong interest of Gleason’s so she decided to  volunteer for an organization that would allow her to help children in those situations. 

“I think the experience of engaging with an organization that has such an important impact on people’s lives… I just couldn’t even imagine it any other way,” said Gleason. 

During the week-long camp, Gleason and the children in foster care participated in traditional camping activities such as swimming, rock climbing, horseback riding and campfire nights. The siblings were also able to bond at the “Sibling Talent Show,” “Creative Art Project” and “Camp-Wide Birthday Party.”

“That’s really what is unique about the camp is that they are spending time with their siblings that they often don’t get the chance to see more than a few times a year, if that,” she said. “It’s great to see the brothers and sisters interact.” 

In addition to volunteering each summer, she also assists the organization with fundraising initiatives throughout the year from Philadelphia. 

But Gleason doesn’t stop there. She’s also a mentor to a nine-year-old girl for Big Brothers Big Sisters of America. 

A lifelong mentorship 

As a “big,” Gleason searches the internet weekly for fun activities to do with her “little.” Their most recent outing took place the week before school started. The pair went grocery and gift shopping as they discussed expectations for the upcoming school year. The week before that, they went to see the Disney movie “Brave” in 3D. 

Gleason says one of the best activities the pair participated in was the Big Brothers Big Sisters sponsored outing to The Philadelphia Zoo.

“It was great to go to the zoo with my little sister who has never been there before,” said Gleason, who intentionally asked to be matched with a younger child because she views the relationship as a lifelong commitment.

Gleason’s perspective of volunteering and caring for others is what prompted her friend, Rebecca Winkler, to nominate her for the NewsWorks Local Hero series.

“The great thing about her is at 28-years-old, when other young people are simmering down and partying, she is doing more work, and I think it’s rare,” said Winkler, who volunteers for an organization that works with senior citizens.

To nominate your own local hero, please submit a tip to nwproducers@whyy.org

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