The sights and sounds of Guatemala as well as the tastes and aromas produced by the country’s kitchens filled a summer camp for children adopted from Guatemala.

The Guatemalan Culture Camp (GCC), co-sponsored by the School of Social Work at The University of Texas at Austin and the Texamalans, a group for Texas families with children from Guatemala, was held June 17-21, 2013, at the Central Presbyterian Church. The camp hosted 11 campers ranging in age from 5 to 12. Camp participants came from Texas, Louisiana and New York.

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 and run the camp.

Guatemalan Culture Camp 2013The weeklong camp gives the children an opportunity to be together, have fun, learn about their birth country and heritage, and talk about adoption.

Cultural activities included dance, cooking, art, theater and music. Paola Bueche, senior program coordinator in the Mesoamerica Center of the College of Fine Arts at The University of Texas at Austin, led campers in putting together heritage arts projects.

The camp’s final evening fiesta included a meal of traditional Guatemalan food and cultural performances to celebrate with families and community members.

A portion of the camp was called the Adoption Journey. Janie Cravens, an adjunct professor at the School of Social Work, led discussions with the children about their adoption experiences.

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, nearly 30,000 were born in Guatemala. Texas families adopted more than 11,000 foreign-born children during these years. 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.

“Their birth heritage and culture are always a part of their identities and we always want to celebrate that,” Jones said. “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.”

Guatemalan Culture Camp 2013-1Latina counselors, from the School of Social Work, Nursing and the History Department at The University of Texas at Austin, spent the week with the campers, giving them positive Latina role models. Bianetth Valdez (BSW, 2012), an alumni of the School of Social Work, was a counselor for the younger children.

“This year’s participants are talented, energetic, and eager to learn about their birth country,” said Cristina Metz, a doctoral student in History and a Guatemalan-American. “It has been an honor to share with them what I know about Guatemalan history and culture. Camp co-founders Barbara Jones and Kathi Thomas have created an extraordinary opportunity for cultural exchange and I encourage other parents of children adopted from Guatemala to participate.”

In addition to the heritage and adoption issues, the children got 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, the camp was a time to spend a week with their friends and get to know them on a deeper level.”