Kate O’Toole attended her first Vietnam culture camp almost by accident. She had attended a Tet celebration marking the Vietnamese New Year and won a paid weekend at camp with her toddler son.
That was in 2001 and she and her son John, who’s now 11, have been back every single year.
O’Toole, who adopted John as an infant from Vietnam, says that what brings her back is the camaraderie. “It’s a place where there are families who look just like us. And the kids don’t have to explain why their parents are Caucasian or Hispanic and they are Asian. And they can complain about us to people who really understand what they’re going through!” she laughs. “It’s a great weekend.”
Vietnam culture camp is the brainchild of Caroline Ticarro-Parker, who is Vietnamese and adopted her 11-year-old twin daughters from Vietnam. Her Northfield-based organization, Catalyst, does humanitarian work in Vietnam, as well as running the annual camp. Every September around 80 families with kids adopted from Vietnam gather on the St. Olaf campus for activities focused on the culture and language of the country that ties them all together.
O’Toole first attended in its first year, and the camp has grown right along with the kids.
“Right now we don’t have a lot of infants coming into the group, which is sad, but it is the reality of international adoption,” she says. “John is now one of the older children. Caroline has been very good at tailoring things to keep the kids interested. She’s beginning to have discussion groups around teasing and other things they might face at school that they might now want to talk to their parents about.”
“One of the best things is the counselors,” O’Toole adds. “[Ticarro-Parker] goes out of her way to find young Vietnamese Americans and young Vietnamese who come to this country to go to school. So, the kids are surrounded by wonderful role models.”
Latvian camp is serious business
Rita Pelecis attended Latvian camp in Michigan just about every summer of her childhood, right up through her last year of high school. That’s what the children and grandchildren of émigrés who had fled the Soviet invasion during World War II did.
And Latvian camp is serious business: The six-week session for high-schoolers includes intensive instruction in literature, geography, history, culture, singing, and dancing. There are exams. And grades.
Pelecis says her own parents didn’t pressure her to get all As at camp, as some parents did. “It was social,” she says. “I wanted to hang out with my friends. And my parents said, ‘Don’t screw up. Don’t get kicked out.’”
“I got sick of it in my 20s,” she adds. “It wasn’t until I had kids that I went back.”
Now the Minneapolis mother of three drives her kids to the same camp she attended, Garezers, about an hour outside Chicago. The large complex hosts activities all year long and is hopping throughout the summer. It offers a weeklong family camp and separate sessions for kids who speak Latvian and kids who don’t.
The kids’ camp offers all the usual camp and social stuff — hikes and dances, campfires and skits — but they always sneak in some education. Pelecis says she was surprised when her oldest daughter came home one year having learned some vocabulary that would never come up in your typical kitchen-table conversation, like “large intestine.”
You might expect a camp like Garezers, which was created to maintain young people’s ties to a culture closed to them by the Iron Curtain, to lose its relevance at a time when communication, travel, and even re-immigration to the homeland have become so much easier. But the camp is still going strong.
“As long as people are willing to invest time and money in whatever they define as Latvian, it will survive,” Pelecis says.
Kari Urberg Carlson and her family just got back from a family weekend at a Norwegian camp run by Concordia University. The whole family — including kids ages 6 and 8 — took a long cross-country ski trek (it doesn’t get more Norwegian than that!), sang Norwegian songs, ate Norwegian food, and spent time with families who share their heritage.
The trip was rewarding in itself, but it also served to whet the kids’ appetites for the weeklong day camp they’ll attend this summer in Bemidji. “They had been talking about going to Spanish instead of Norwegian camp, because they’re learning Spanish at school,” she says. “After the family weekend, we never heard anything more about that.”
The Minneapolis family still has close relatives in Norway and attends Norwegian-language church services, and camp plays an important part in maintaining ties to their culture. Last summer both kids attended Concordia’s half-day program for younger kids in the Twin Cities, where they learned songs and games that can pave the way for later language classes. “At this age, what’s important is the cultural exposure — and it’s cheaper than a plane ticket!” Urberg Carlson laughs.
As for whether the interest in Norwegian language and culture will someday compete with other activities and camps, Urberg Carlson says, “That’s something we’re going to have to negotiate as we go along. We’re planning a trip to Norway eventually and that might be part of the incentive, to say, ‘You’re going to have to be able to talk to people.’ As they get older and more opinionated it could be that they decide that [being Norwegian] is really a part of their identity or they just decide that it’s weird and embarrassing.”
In the meantime, Urberg Carlson says, culture camp has been a “very positive experience” and it’s helping the kids find answers to the question, “What does it mean that we’re Norwegian?”