It’s all about belonging. The first things you notice about Lynn Price are her vitality and energy. But it’s when she begins to speak that you get a sense of her passion, not just in general terms, but in a highly defined and profound sense. As the founder of Camp To Belong, Price has dedicated her life to reuniting siblings living in foster care and helping them create memories that will last a lifetime. This sibling relationship, which so many of us take for granted, is the essence of what Price strives to establish through her life’s work. Her commitment grew from her own experience as a foster child and has taken root in a way that is both heartwarming and beautiful. At the age of 8, Price was living in a Chicago suburb with parents she believed were her real mother and father. She had been raised as an only child and had no idea she had both a birth mother and older sister Suddenly, her world literally turned upside down when her birth mother emerged and wanted to reconnect with the daughters she had lost so many years earlier.
“My real father was a gambler and ladies’ man who abandoned the family. My mother suffered a nervous breakdown and was institutionalized, unable to care for us. Social Services placed my sister and me in separate homes, and we never knew about each other for several years,” Price says. So now here she is, living with a wonderful family, her life full with friends and school, when out of nowhere along comes a woman who says she wants her daughters to be a part of her life. For the next 10 years, Price resisted overtures that would help carve relationships with her mother or sister, keeping this part of her life a secret out of a profound embarrassment. She continued to have supervised visits with her mother and sister, but always refrained from getting too close to either one. “Ultimately, I was never reunited with my mother, and my foster family never adopted me. I knew my mother loved me, but out of loyalty to my foster parents I just wouldn’t let her in. It was very confusing, and I didn’t want to be disloyal to either one,” she recalls.
Eight years ago, Price’s birth mother died, but not before she finally built a bridge of understanding with her younger daughter. Two weeks before she passed away, she came to Colorado to visit Price. Her mother had married her high school prom date and was happy and settled. “I was also happy, with three kids, and my sister had three kids as well,” Price says. “For the first time, I could look at my mother, hug her, and say, ‘I love you,’ and really feel it.” Two weeks later, her mother died of a brain hemorrhage, but Price smiles as she reflects on what was clearly “the most forgiving time in our whole relationship.” Her breakthrough with her sister had come earlier, when, as a junior in high school, she went to visit her sister in college. “The first thing my sister said was, ‘I want to introduce you as my littler sister.’ My life until then had been a secret, but she had told everybody our story. It opened something up in me, and today, she’s my best friend in the world,” says Price.
Best friends or not, the one thing the two sisters could never create are the wonderful childhood memories that can come only from growing up in close proximity to a brother or sister. Price explains, “When you look at your life, you realize that living in foster care is such a small segment of your entire existence. Typically, even though siblings are separated in the foster care system, they still live in the same community, attend the same schools and have some kind of interaction. My sister and I missed out on that social interaction and love that other kids carry with them into adulthood.” This void remained with Price, even as she matured into adulthood. She worked for a time in the telecommunications industry, handling national accounts for programming efforts for Group W Communications and ESPN.
In 1991, she founded Price and Associates, a company that provided sales, marketing and production services to the telecommunications industry. In 1994, she sold the business and moved with her family to Las Vegas, where she was a fulltime mother to her three children. However, she still felt the need to be involved in the community and soon volunteered as a courtappointed special advocate (CASA), overseeing the welfare of kids in the social services domain. “Statistics show that as a foster child myself, I should have been dead, homeless or in prison. I did not want these kids to be able to use the system as a way not to succeed,” she says. “I did research and discovered that out of nearly 600,000 kids in the foster care system, the majority are separated from at least one sibling. I wanted to work with those kids and give them something to build their lives on.” Although Price felt undeniably empathetic toward these children, she was careful not to encourage them to feel sorry for themselves or to give up: “My approach was to be forwardthinking. I would tell them, ‘You’re in this predicament through no fault of your own, but that said, don’t wallow in your problems.’” Instead, Price encouraged these kids to surround themselves with people who would offer love and support moving forward. She explains, “I was not so much hard on them as I was inspirational. I tried to give them hope, because I understood where they were coming from.
“For those of us who have been in the system, we’re in this constant test and trust stage. So many of us are used to being labeled, and people are always waiting for us to mess up. Then when it happens, it’s self-fulfilling. Then the response becomes, ‘Are you going to stick with me when I mess up, or should I continue to sabotage my life? I know you’re not going to want me, so I’ll mess up and leave on my own terms.’ So now the mess-up is more of a test.” Lynn PriceMany of these foster children have huge chips on their shoulders, Price acknowledges, but that does not mean they are bad kids. Once a level of trust can be established, even the toughest of the tough will cry, the shiest will become leaders, and they can excel. It’s just a matter of giving them the leeway to make the mistakes and accept them. With three wonderful kids of her own, Price has learned firsthand just how strong the sibling bond can be. Her own children are now 17, 19 and 21, and recently she adopted a 22-yearold son. “He emancipated from the system and said that all he wanted was to be part of a real family,” she says. “He had been with us in more of a Disneyland setting but had never lived at home with us. It was a real test for him, but it worked out.”
Today, Price’s passion centers on a culmination of her life’s work and life experiences. While living in Las Vegas, she was working at a children’s shelter. “I sat down at a table in an elementary school, and there was a little girl peering out at a boy on the other side of the courtyard,” she recalls. “I asked her who it was, and she said it was her brother. I said, ‘Let’s invite him over,’ but she told me the kids were restricted from spending time together.” That single moment provided the impetus to create a setting in which siblings could spend quality time together without being watched and judged, a setting in which those precious life experiences and childhood memories could be created. She contacted the Department of Children and Family Services with the idea of starting a camp where siblings in the social services arena could attend a week-long camp. And so, in 1995, Camp To Belong was born. The first year, 32 kids attended the camp, which was held at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas. “There was no pool, so the local fire department would come and hose the kids down,” she laughs. Yet the true experiences, while less obvious, were so much more precious. “After one week’s time, we were able to give these children permission to be easy with each other, to have a voice and to spend quality time together. These kids were already living apart from each other, but they could still be part of each others’ lives,” she says.
In 1997, Price moved her family back to Denver. Working with the director of Children and Family Services in Las Vegas, she brought a group of kids to Estes Park, Colo., for a oneweek camp experience. The camp, held at the YMCA of the Rockies, hosted 80 siblings from Nevada, Colorado and Wyoming, along with a writer from Parade magazine, who stayed for the entire week. The resulting article helped the camp become a catalyst for recruitment of staff and kids and the model for future camps. Today, the camp has grown to include venues across the United States and Canada, and talks are under way to start similar camps in Australia and England. Price travels the globe as a guest lecturer on sibling connections and was awarded President Clinton’s Points of Light Service Award in 1998. In 2000, she was awarded the Oprah Winfrey Angel Network Use Your Life Award. Then came the crowning achievement, when that same year, Camp To Belong helped in the passage of Colorado House Bill 1108, which increased accountability for the child welfare system with regard to sibling separations and out-of-home placements.
She has also received Redbook’s 2003 Mothers and Shakers award, CBS morning show’s American Hero award, and the L’Eggs Hosiery Women Who Shape Our World honor. In 2006, her efforts took her straight to Washington, D.C. “I had a vision for a National Sibling Connection Day, and Sen. Salazar co-sponsored a resolution that went to the U.S. Senate. It passed unanimously!” she exclaims. Lynn Price “My life’s work has been so rewarding, and my own kids have made it easy,” Price says. “They’ve really grown up in Camp To Belong and have been so unselfish when it comes to sharing me and our home. We’ve had nine different kids live in our home at different times, whether they were counselors who worked with us, recently emancipated kids or even my own kids’ friends. Our home has always had an open door, and the kids have always been fine with that.” Now, in the next stage of her incredible journey, Price’s life is taking a different turn. Her two eldest children are living away from home, and her youngest daughter recently signed on with DDO Artist Agency in Los Angeles. “So now it’s time for me to spread my wings,” she says. “We have a new working board, and we’ve hired a new associate director. This organization is all about vision, and while I’ll continue to be the visionary and the voice behind this project, I’m also interested in working with other organizations to help them bring a voice to their visions.”
As part of her work, she plans to draw heavily from her recently published book, Real Belonging, Give Siblings Their Right to Reunite, a biographical look at her life’s journey and work. Unfortunately, there are so many thousands of kids just like Price, who are deprived of the precious sibling connections that others take for granted. Fortunately, there is a woman, Lynn Price, who will continue to take the momentous steps that may one day forever change the way siblings in foster care are allowed to bond, live and love.
By ELLEN GRAY
Photography STEVE GROER
Jacket by Ralph Lauren at Andrisen Morton
Shell at Clotheshorse Boutique
Hair by Sabrina Patterson
Make-up by Elizabeth Kuhn
Both for Matthew Morris Salon