February 28, 2022

Nurse Opens Summer Camp to Reunite Siblings Separated in Foster Care

Nurse Opens Summer Camp to Reunite Siblings Separated in Foster Care

Just when the world may be in need of being reminded that really good people exist who accomplish really good things, let us bring you the story of Samii Emdur. 

Samantha (Samii) Emdur, is an RN-BSN Clinical Nurse in Oncology at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) and the founder/director of Camp to Belong, a summer camp with a mission of reuniting siblings who have been separated through foster care. As a mom who has fostered 13 children and counting herself, Emdur has a heart for children who are in the foster care system and Camp to Belong is just one way that she is making a big difference in the lives of countless children.

Read on to find out more about her story, how her summer camp is bringing siblings together, and how, at only the age of 9, she had made up her mind to become a foster parent herself. 

An Early Passion to Help

You could say that Emdur has felt the pull towards a life spent helping others from a very young age. She tells Nurse.org that since second grade, she has always known she wanted to be a nurse, specifically at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, because all three of her siblings (Emdur is the oldest) had been treated at CHOP. 

“I never wavered from that dream,” she says. 

And in a way, medicine is in her blood—her parents met as paramedics volunteering on the ambulance squad and Emdur says they piqued her interest in the medical field from a very early age. “Seeing them never hesitate to stop and help a stranger experiencing a medical emergency surely influenced me,” she shares. 

That early interest into the medical world was further flamed through none other than the movie world—Emdur recalls watching both ET (when the alien is being treated for hypothermia) and Patch Adams, which further solidified her desire to someday work in oncology. Then, as a teenager, Emdur began volunteering at a camp for children with cancer, their siblings, and bereaved siblings. There, she says she met some of her closest friends who are cancer survivors and/or currently undergoing treatment for cancer. 

“Seeing their tenacity and courage further influenced my desire to work in oncology,” Emdur notes. “Kids are resilient and despite being hooked up to IV chemotherapy, you will find them singing silly slings and cheering up those around them.”

Emdur made her dreams come true and now spends her time doing exactly what she once pictured: working as a pediatric oncology nurse at CHOP, a role she says she is extremely honored to hold. 

“I feel honored to sit with patients and families during their most vulnerable and difficult days—to feel comfortable holding non-judgmental space and a listening ear is crucial and rewarding,” she says. “When a child is diagnosed with cancer, nothing is taken for granted and even little moments are celebrated largely. We have meaningful conversations intertwined with holding a basin for vomit or dancing while attached to an IV pole—and ‘normalizing’ their experience as much as possible is an honor.”

Feeling a Pull Towards Fostering  

Just as she knew she wanted to work in the medical field someday, Emdur also knew from a very early age that she wanted to be a foster parent. In fact, she shares that in fourth grade, at the ripe age of 9, after reading a book about foster care and adoption, she had already decided that she would be a foster parent someday. 

“From my own personal experiences, I have always valued the importance of having at least one healthy adult in a child’s life who can protect and nurture them, especially in the face of trauma,” she explains. “I knew from a young age that I wanted to be that safe adult for children.”

After caring for a patient who happened to be in foster care, Emdur was motivated to take the official step towards becoming a foster parent herself. She went home that same day and started the application process. From then, she has gone on to foster a total of 13 children, ranging in age from premature/newborn to 18 years old. Several children have had medical needs, and all have experienced some form of abuse, neglect, and trauma.  

In 2019, Emdur adopted her daughter, Jordan, now 4 years old. She’s also currently fostering a 6-month-old baby girl who was born 2 months premature and was placed with her directly from the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU).

Images courtesy of: Samantha Emdur

Images courtesy of: Samantha Emdur

It was during an experience attending an oncology summer camp in 2013 that Emdur had an “epiphany” that she needed to create a camp for kids in foster care. 

“I knew how special camp was for me, and if I could replicate that experience for other children that could be so meaningful,” she says. “All of the children I have fostered were separated from their biological sibling(s) and it became evident that there needed to be a safe place to bring siblings together and truly give them a place to belong.”

And although it took nearly 5 years of fine-tuning, in 2018, Camp To Belong River Valley was founded and received its 501©3 nonprofit status. Emdur’s dreams were all on their way to realization. 

A Place to Belong

As she explains, the mission of Camp To Belong River Valley (CTBRV) is to reunite brothers and sisters who have been separated by foster care. The goal is to create a safe and fun environment for youth in foster care to regain a sense of permanency and connection by strengthening their sibling relationships. 

“Our camp programs are a catalyst for building strong sibling relationships while providing a sense of belonging,” Emdur explains. 

Although it can sound hard to believe, nearly 75% of the approximately 400,000 children in foster care in America right now are separated from at least one sibling. She explains that the urgency in removing children from their homes and into foster care placement means that it’s not always possible to place siblings together, especially if it’s a large family. Additionally, some siblings may need more 1 on 1 attention from a foster family or may not be safe being placed with other children. 

What Camp to Belong does, then, is give those separated siblings a chance to not only be together again, but to create meaningful connections together. As part of a larger network of Camp To Belong, with 11 locations across the US and one in Australia, Camp To Belong River Valley features signature programs that occur each day of camp. Designed to specifically address the relational needs of youth who are separated by foster care, these signature programs include: 

  • Birthday parties—siblings often don’t get to celebrate birthdays or even holidays together, so the camp sets up a “store” for shopping, crafts birthday cards, and designs cakes for a camp-wide birthday bash.
  • Campfire Circles
  • Carnival Day 
  • Community Give-back and Leadership Skills 
  • Scrapbooking Day—each family has a photographer who captures their memories throughout the week. Prior to the final day of camp, staff prints off hundreds of photos and the siblings then create sentimental scrapbooks they can take home.  
  •  Sentimental Pillow and Quilt-Making—siblings make and exchange pillows with sentimental messages, which allows each camper to take home a tangible item made by their sibling.  

Images courtesy of: Samantha Emdur

To actually bring separated siblings together,  the Camp works with caseworkers and collaborates with state agencies such as DCPP, DHS, CASA and even hospital=based programs to refer youth for camp. Emdur says that they then have a thorough process to ensure each child is safe to be in the camp setting and feels supported to connect with their sibling, as this can often be an emotional experience.  

Images courtesy of: Samantha Emdur

The hard work, however, has paid off: In 2019, the Camp held its first week-long overnight camp, reuniting 20 siblings from New Jersey and Pennsylvania and then reunited an additional 45 siblings during day-long SibsConnect events. In 2020, due to pandemic restraints, the Camp turned its efforts to giving out youth camper kits and in 2021, distributed 100 camper kits to kids in foster care across the region. Their efforts were funded in part by a Pilot Pen grant that Emdur received personally, which she then donated to the camp. 

For Emdur, seeing the fruits of her labor has made it all worthwhile. “I have one distinct memory of three siblings seeing each other for the first time in a very long time,” she recalls of one particularly hot day in August. While the rest of the camp and counselors were busy with activities and excitement, two brothers and their sister caused a moment of silence as they leaned in for a family hug. “They were standing in each other’s embrace while chaos surrounded them, and it was as though nothing else in the world mattered at that moment,” she says. “This was the moment I knew all of the hard work to pull camp off was well worth it!” 

Images courtesy of: Samantha Emdur

This year, the goal is to host an in-person week-long camp and Emdur has high hopes it will happen, despite the fact that the organization is 100% run by volunteers and campers attend free of charge with camp scholarships.

“All children deserve the opportunity to spend meaningful time with their brothers and sisters,” she says. “We are dedicated to helping make that happen for siblings in foster care. Because of my experience with fostering, I never take for granted saying goodnight, sharing meals, or playing silly games with my siblings—for I know that this is not possible for all children impacted by foster care.” 

National Attention

Her work with the foster system and the camp has recently garnered national attention. In February, she was featured on the Drew Barrymore show. For all of her work with the community, she was announced as a Drew-Gooders and gifted a five-day vacation to South Seas Island Resort in Fort Myers, Florida. 

While the vacation will be a nice bonus for this hard-working nurse, the segment on the Drew Barrymore show highlighted the camp, the work that Emdur is doing, and the need for foster parents, especially for siblings. 

If you are interested in becoming a foster parent, check with your local and state agencies. If you are interested in learning more or volunteering with Camp To Belong River Valley, follow them @ctbrivervalley, visit www.CTBRV.org, email info@ctbrivervalley.org or call (856)304-4972. They are always looking for passionate and committed volunteers.  

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