AUSTIN, Texas – The University of Texas at Austin School of Social Work recently co-sponsored two culture camps for children adopted from Guatemala and from China.

The Chinese Culture Camp, co-sponsored by the Austin chapter of Families with Children from China (FCC), began in 2010. It marked its third session this year with 100 adopted girls and boys from China, 78 adoptive families, 24 counselors, 28 teachers, 40 volunteers, and four directors and co-directors.

The Guatemalan Culture Camp, named Campamento de Cultura Guatemalteca, co-sponsored by the Texamalans, (a group for Texas families with children from Guatemala) opened its inaugural session this year with 15 campers. The camp is first of its kind in Texas for children adopted from Guatemala.

Dr. Rowena Fong, the Ruby Lee Piester Centennial Professor in Services to Children and Families in the School of Social Work, who has expertise in adoptions, particularly transracial adoptions, worked with Becky Harding, a parent of two children adopted from China, to start the Chinese Culture Camp.

Dr. Barbara Jones, a School of Social Work associate professor and parent of a daughter adopted from Guatemala, worked with Kathi Thomas, founder of the Texamalans and also an adoptive parent, to start Campamento de Cultura Guatemalteca (CCG).

In both camps, internationally adopted children had a weeklong opportunity to be together, have fun, learn about their birth countries and heritage, and talk about adoption.

The camps provided cultural activities including dance, martial arts, cooking, language classes, heritage arts, theater and music. In addition, clinical social workers and therapists who specialize in adoption led discussions with the children about their adoption journeys. Each camp held a final afternoon of traditional food and performance to celebrate with families and community members.

Nationally, between 1999 and 2011, American families adopted more than 233,000 children from foreign countries, according to the U.S. State Department. Of this total, more than 66,000 children came from China and nearly 30,000 were born in Guatemala. Texas families adopted more than 11,000 foreign-born children during these years. There are approximately 1,000 families in the Austin area with children adopted from China. Austin area families with children adopted from Guatemala number about 40.

International adoption rates have varied among foreign countries depending on their size and adoption policies. The number of international adoptions in the U.S. has slowed in recent years because of policy changes in the native countries.

“In China, because of the Single Child Policy, local Chinese couples are adopting more of the special needs Chinese children that are being abandoned in the orphanages, police stations and train stations,” Fong said. “However, despite the traditional preference for boys in China, special needs boys are being adopted by American families. Out of our 100 adopted children in our 2012 camp, we had 12 boys, which is quite unusual.”

“It’s important as part of who they are for the adopted children to know the cultures of the native countries and for their adoptive families to share in the appreciation of those cultures,” Fong said. “As these children grow up in white families they need to know who they are.”

“Ethnic identity formation is another goal for these camps besides having socialization activities that appreciate the ethnic cultures,” Fong added.

“Their birth heritage and culture are  always a part of their identities and we never want them  to lose who they are,” Jones said of the children’s native identities. “In fact, research shows us that children benefit from opportunities to embrace all of the parts of their identity in a safe and nurturing environment.”

To nurture the ethnic identity of the children, female and male counselors assisted in each of the culture camps. Of the 24 Asian American counselors at the Chinese camp, 14 were from China Care, a UT Austin student-run organization. The other 10 counselors were Chinese adopted persons who had previously attended Chinese Culture Camp or are longstanding FCC high-school volunteer members. The counselors spent all week with the campers. “The goal with the counselors was to help with ethnic identity so that the kids would have role models,” Fong said.

Positive role models were a significant outcome finding in the “Beyond Culture Camp: Healthy Identity Formation” report published by the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute in 2009.

Harding said a panel discussion with two counselors who had been adopted from China, as well as an adult who had been an adoptee from Korea, was an important part of the camp.

“We have them tell their adoption story in their own voice and talk about their experiences, which, by and large, have been positive,” Harding said. “That experience makes all the work and all the time so worthwhile because it’s so powerful.”

In the Guatemalan Camp, Latina counselors who are students in the UT Austin College of Education and at Texas State spent all week with their campers as well, giving them positive Latina role models. The camp’s instructors represented Austin, Houston and Dallas areas of the state. One of the week’s highlights for CCG was a visit from a Guatemalan-American family living in San Antonio who cooked traditional Guatemalan food for and with campers, modeled traditional clothing and toys from Guatemala, and entranced the campers with folk tales and photos of their native country.

In addition to the heritage and adoption issues, the children at both camps get a chance to know other children who have also been internationally adopted, and see families that “look more like theirs.”  They enhance their sense of personal and cultural pride and recognize that they know other children just like themselves.

At both camps, children bonded with each other and developed friendships that continue outside the camps.

“They’re making plans to go to birthday parties and see each other again. These relationships are very important,” Jones said. “While some of the children already knew each other through the Texamalans, CCG was a time to spend a week with their friends and get to know them on a deeper level.”

And it’s very likely they’ll see each other again when the camps meet in summer 2013.