Adoptive Families Have Fun While Learning at Vietnamese Heritage Camp

By Lea Ann Kaplan

This summer my husband Keith, our son Theodore Hieu and I traveled to a Vietnamese Heritage Camp in Colorado. Keith and I adopted our son from Hoa Binh, Vietnam. He was about 5 months old and such an adorable baby. And now at almost 3, he is growing into a wonderful child.

I had read emails from families who had attended the Vietnamese Heritage Camp the year before. Parents spoke of what it had meant to them to participate with other families in the educational workshops and social activities for children and adults. It sounded like so much fun, I decided we should go to the next one. We would learn more about Vietnam and its culture and meet other adoptive families.

Colorado Heritage Camps, Inc. organized their first Vietnamese Camp just last year and have been facilitating camps for adoptive families for many years. Other heritage camps include Chinese, Indian, Latin American, African-American, Russian and Korean.

So on the eighteenth of August, we flew to Denver, then drove up 4000 ft into the Rocky Mountains to Snow Mountain Ranch, for 3 days of fun and learning. This resort area has many cabins and lodges with private baths, a cafeteria and many recreational activities in which families could participate when they weren't attending the Heritage Camp events. Even though the word "ranch" sounded rustic to me, the only roughing it we had to do was living without a television in our room.

Forty-two families attended the camp this year, with more than 70 children divided into groups by grade level. To make organizing the children easier, each group had a specific color T-shirt. Theo's preschool class wore red shirts with the camp's logo. All of the parents wore matching t-shirts too. Young adults from the local Vietnamese community, some of them adoptees, led each group of children as counselors. The children got very attached to their counselors, wanting to sit and eat with them even when they weren't in workshops.

The children attended age appropriate workshops with the counselors on Saturday. The younger children made crafts like dragon masks, and Vietnamese hats. They learned a Vietnamese song and heard Vietnamese folktales. The middle school and high school students learned some Vietnamese language, heard about what it is like to live in Vietnam and participated in a Challenge Course. Although parents had to sign a waiver for the Challenge Course, the kids all returned safe and happy. All of the children participated in "HeART Talks" where they made artwork that reflected their feelings about adoption, culture and families. Theo spent a long time with the other preschoolers fishing for plastic fish and planting pretend rice seedlings in the Vietnamese Village area. In this area, each group of children decorated a dragon elaborately. The children glued stickers, glitter and fancy foam shapes onto the basic shape made from cardboard boxes, red paper and long red tail.

I saw all of the children gaining so much from attending this camp. I overhead a boy about 8 years old, complaining to his parents that he never wanted this camp to end. Children socialized together during meals and played outdoors between workshops. They learned more about Vietnamese culture and formed friendships with other children who have similar life experiences.

While the children did activities with the counselors during the day Saturday, the adults attended workshops. The workshops included Jeanie Sumrall-Ajero talking about living in Vietnam. Trish Maskew, author of Our Own, Adopting and Parenting the Older Child, spoke about adoption issues children adopted at any age may have. Sister Sen Nguyen described the philosophy and religion of Vietnam. Cherie Clark and other board members from the IMH adoption agency attended the camp. Cherie had a book signing for After Sorrow Comes Joy and spoke individually with families. Jessica Medinger, an adult Vietnamese adoptee, and her mother formed a panel to talk with families. A Vietnamese cooking class was taught by Kathy Jorin. Keith raved about this class all day and felt too full from the food they cooked to eat dinner that night.

On Saturday evening, the children participated in a dragon parade led by experienced dragon dancers from Denver's Vietnamese community. The children paraded around under the dragons they had made during the workshops following the big colorful dragon. Parents lined up outside to watch with cameras flashing everywhere. Many children wore the traditional outfits from Vietnam. Theo wore his embroidered red silk outfit.

The group of young people from Denver's Queens Vietnamese Modern Church then demonstrated the traditional dragon dance with drums beating like a dragon's heart, the dragon's head popping up straining against the fabric of its tail. They also preformed Vietnamese folk songs and dances wearing bright traditional outfits. They had choreographed the dances themselves and made props like red and gold fans for a fan dance. During these performances, the children lined up on stage and sang the Vietnamese song they had learned earlier in the day. They looked so proud singing in Vietnamese and doing the hand movements for the song.

On Sunday, the children made kites while the adults heard the keynote speaker, LeAnn Thieman, author of This Must Be My Bother. Her moving presentation related her role in the 1975 Operation Babylift and her personal story of adopting her son from Vietnam during that time. I had tears in my eyes as I heard how her son had crawled to her in the orphanage and actually chose her to be his mother. And I felt relieved that she was able to safely return home with her son and escort many other babies on their way home too.

For another resource, the camp provided a cultural market filled with crafts and other items from Vietnam and books, music and items related to adoption. There were embroidered T-shirts, pictures and bags, woven baskets, jewelry, traditional musical instruments and much more. I happily bought more Vietnamese items to decorate our house and for gifts.

The camp served traditional Vietnamese food, a rice noodle dish with spring rolls for lunch on Saturday. We ate the rest of our meals at the main cafeteria that provided food for all of the guests of the ranch. Meal times presented great opportunities to meet other families, talk and socialize. Our matching t-shirts enabled us to identify other families attending the heritage camp. We met and ate with many different families and discussed similarities and differences in our adoption and parenting experiences. We shared where we lived and how we brought Vietnamese culture into our children's lives. I personally reaffirmed my appreciation for the diversity in the Seattle area. I think we have many resources to bring Asian culture into our homes naturally. I felt another rewarding experience when other parents understood our complicated issues because they had experienced them too. I mentioned our son being the perfect child for our family, and everyone knew exactly how I felt.

We parents truly appreciate the Vietnamese youth group for sharing their culture and all of the volunteers who gave their time, knowledge and resources to make this Heritage Camp come together. I came away from this experience more confident, with parenting suggestions, ideas for fun kids' activities and wonderful memories.

Learn more at the Colorado Heritage Camp : Southeast Asian/Pacific Islanders Heritage Camp (SEAPI)