Sae Jong Camp – 2018

This was the kids’ 3rd year attending SJC and I was relieved it was now part of our routine. Olivia has been really looking forward to it, but about a month before camp, Lucas was starting to share his reservations. He said it was 40% spiders, 35% friends, 10% skit and 15% other.  These were some serious concerns.

Things were getting critical in the days leading up to camp. Grace was making all sorts of side-deals (one shower?!?). I don’t negotiate with terrorists, so I stayed firm and became the “worst person in the world” for making him go, officially earning my tiger dad black belt. He’s still holding a grudge.

There were 64 campers this year, 15 of whom were new. Of those 15, six belonged to David, Grace and Tessie, three of our closest family friends. It was so nice to see them all there finally and each of us had a girl in Olivia’s cabin while Lucas was in a cabin with David’s youngest. Zoë was also finally a first-time camper, too. I’m now used to seeing regular out-of-state friends at drop off and pick up, including my ride-or-die, Joe, who chose to be a good husband instead of a shitty golfer with me all week.

Jeanah pulled a Thelma and Louse with Christine and drove all the way from Philly for our mini reunion later in the week. I had a great time with them and Paula and David at Forest Dunes. It was great to see many old friends at visitor’s day, especially Heather and her dad, who along with her mom, were always thoughtful supporters of mine when I was directing.

I’m pretty sure the kids had a great time at camp, even Lucas, who just won’t admit it yet. Thanks to Jami for directing, the awesome staff for their enthusiasm and empathy, and Doug for continuing to bear the torch of SJC. Our kids are all so lucky and I’m thankful they still have many years of camp ahead. May they appreciate the experience in the moment and years from now, as I do.

Visiting Day and Pickup at SJC

Last Friday was visiting day at SJC, which we’ve attended for the past five years, but this was our first as camp parents. My parents and their friends also made the drive up, making it three generations of people at camp who have contributed so much over the past 40 years.

Lucas and Olivia were happy to see us, but were doing fine. When the bell rang at the end of music, Lucas abruptly departed, fully-programmed after just one week. We met their cabin mates and they showed us around.

There is no longer a bus option, so we stayed overnight to bring the kids home the next day. There happened to be a beautiful top-ranked public golf course right in Roscommon, so I hatched an ingenious plan to stay there overnight. JP and YY booked a room there at the last minute and we now had a foursome and the first tee time. It was all so perfect, until I woke up to steady rain. JP and I hung out in the pro shop and watched the radar before finally throwing in the towel.

We got to camp around noon and the campers and staff were already saying their goodbyes. There were lifelong friends, new friends, Westminster staff, and our kids’ new friends and heroes. Beautiful people all of them.

Lucas’s expectations were very low and they were greatly exceeded. Olivia said as we were walking out that she didn’t want to leave. Neither of them were happy about the spiders, but that’s camp life. Thank you to everyone who made this a great first year of camp for our kids. Until next year!

Sae Jong Camp 40th Anniversary Reunion

Sae Jong Camp started in 1976, so this year, a reunion was planned to celebrate its 40 years. It was conveniently held just before camp and although the official agenda was just an overnight, we upgraded to come up early and get as much time as possible together. This was my opportunity to finally get Olivia and Lucas to attend camp, and it allowed me to be with them for a couple nights to ease into it.

Jen met us at the airport on Thursday and we drove up together on Friday. The hard core group was small, and included only Doug, Sandy, Jen and us. I was worried the kids might get spoiled staying in the new Worthington Lodge, which was a little too nice compared to their regular camp accommodations. Jen and I bunked together right next to Olivia and Lucas.

On Saturday, more old-timers arrived. Grace, Sandy, Mary Ann and Doug and their families represented the 2nd generation of campers, as their four mothers were the founders of camp and to whom we owe so much. Jin and Christine made a special effort to come and join us from DC and our BFF Linda’s family came in from NYC. After some touring of camp and some fun on one of the high initiatives, we joined this year’s camp staff for dinner.

The staff members’ dedication and motivations for their service to SJC were very inspiring and especially gratifying to me as I retired 13 years ago. No one has dedicated more time, energy and years to SJC than Doug, who has been there for some 30+ years of the camps 40-year history. His mother, who I remember so well, would be so proud of him. I feel especially fortunate that camp has survived long enough for my own kids to finally participate.

We saw even more old friends on Sunday, as the campers arrived. Some really surprised me. Linda’s kids, Phoebe (the youngest in camp) bunked with Olivia, and Olivier bunked with Lucas. Also, Karin’s daughter, Jamie, was Olivia’s counselor. Karin get’s the assist for introducing me and Grace back in college.

Lucas had been especially apprehensive about going to camp. He was the youngest boy and on Sunday morning, I got up at 5:30am (2:30am “my time”) and couldn’t sleep as I was a little worried about him. There were some tears as I re-packed his bag. He pulled me aside for a private chat and said, “Dad, I need to tell you something. I only came here because I thought it would make you happy.” I died. He killed me at 7 1/2. “Buddy, that’s so sweet, but I only wanted you to come to make you happy.” He clung to me until the very end and there were tears.

Ben, the program director, and several of the counselors were my campers back in the day. It was awesome to have that continuity and know they were looking out for Olivia and Lucas. I had some special operatives who provided me with proof of life by dinner time and regular updates thereafter. They were fine. Our family’s 2nd generation of SJC campers were having a great time.

Thank you, all!

Sae Jong Camp’s 30th Year

It’s likely that many readers of may wonder about the “Camp,” which has a dedicated link in the site navigation above. “Camp” is Sae Jong Camp, which I first attended in 1978 when I was 8 years old. Since then, I enjoyed many years as a camper, then as a staff member, and most recently I served as the camp’s director and primary administrator for 10 years. In all, I have participated in 24 of SJC’s 30 years, if you include my extended visit last week.

Along the way, I started a new camp specifically for adopted Koreans after being inspired by working with and for adoptees at a wonderful camp in Minnesota during and after college. Last year, after 10 years, that camp finally ran its course. Though I think it could have continued and thrived on its own for many years to come, the economics of running two camps, one specifically for adoptees, and another for second and now third-generation Korean-American children, made it impossible to continue each separately.

Because so much of camp is about tradition and lifelong bonds, it is bittersweet to accept that what I started is over. I always knew, and in a way hoped, that the market or need for such a camp would dissipate. The rate of adoption from Korea has slowed, and is nowhere near the rate of the 1980’s.

Through my experiences, I’ve learned from my campers, their families, and my adopted staff, that the tremendous joys and benefits of adoption for all parties also come with a profound sense of loss – loss of a child for the birth parents – and so much more for the children. This loss is exemplified most by the mostly universal, often existential questions our campers have pondered throughout their lives, like:

  • Why did my birth mother give me up?
  • What has become of my birth parents?
  • Who am I?

Though many of our campers have their “files,” which sometimes answers these questions, they are rarely enough to tell the whole store or even the correct one. I’m compelled to recount one person’s incredible story, as he shared it with me last week. I’ve known Chaz for many years, as both he and his older sister grew up going to SJC. The last time I saw him, he was still a camper, so I was pleased to see him back at camp as a first-year staff member.

This past summer, Chaz and his family went on their first trip to Korea with a group that has hosted many of our campers and staff in the past. A couple of weeks before they left, Chaz received word from his case worker that his family had been found and their circumstances were much different from what he had grown up believing. Amazingly, both of his parents were alive and married and it turns out that Chaz has both an older and younger brother.

What seemed unexpected was his meeting with his foster mother, who he met first and who also told him much of his history. When he was born, Chaz required surgery, which his parents at the time could not afford. The doctor had convinced them to put him up for adoption so that he could get the medical care he needed to survive. His foster mother, who typically cared for two children at a time, was only able to care for Chaz because of his condition. She wanted to help him, but was also unable to, and therefore forced to give him up. That first week after giving him up was very difficult for her. In her sorrow, she went out to buy a cross, which she had worn for the past 18 years. She gave that cross to Chaz, which he now wears.

That same day, Chaz met his birth family. It is impossible for me to capture the moment in these words, but the imagery of the way Chaz described it, in addition to a letter he shared with me from his social worker, who witnessed the reunion, was incredibly moving to me. Initially there were few words that could be said by his birth parents except “we’re sorry,” which along with the lifetime of questions and catching up that both parties wanted to know, had to be shared through an interpreter. Incredible, too, was the fact that his brothers did not know of his existence until shortly before their meeting. Chaz has yet to meet his older brother because he is serving in the army, which is compulsory for all Korean men. However, I saw pictures of him and the rest of Chaz’s family.

To be fair, this was a very unlikely meeting with an even unlikelier outcome. And, I’m sure the circumstances of this turn in everyone’s lives are quite complicated. Of the forty-some reunions between families on this program, they told Chaz this is by far the happiest situation given the circumstances. Until then, both Chaz’s parents and foster parents assumed he had died. Chaz’s adopted sister also learned about her family, and though it is unfortunate that her family’s history is not as happy, Chaz indicated that it brought closure to her. I think we have come to hear and use this word, “closure” very casually. In her case, the significance is not lost on me and I am happy that she has at least some answers about the first chapter in her life.

It’s hard to say why hearing this story touched me so much. Ultimately, I’m just happy for Chaz and his family. He’s off to Albion this fall and I wish him the best. He’s already planning a trip back to Korea over the holidays and hopes to study there next summer. He is also reconsidering his career aspirations, which he now hopes will include the opportunity to travel internationally so that he can visit Korea.

I remember now another detail about this story. Chaz’s father told him that he used to smoke a pack a day. This increased to two packs a day or more just prior to their meeting, but once he saw his son, he decided that he would quit smoking and instead use that money to help pay for Chaz’s trips back to Korea. Like so many aspects of this story, to understand Korean culture and values in terms of parenting, family, pride and remorse makes it all the more incredible.

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Returning to camp after missing it last year was a great experience, though I admit that I felt like much more of an observer than a participant. In a way, it was nice to be up there and not have any of the responsibilities that made it difficult to simply enjoy being part of something so endearing, though I always did. I’m most thankful that the staff and the directors (especially my trusted friend, Jeanah) are doing such a great job of carrying on the tradition with the love and care that make camp such a special experience for everyone.

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Hopefully now, one can understand the impact camp has had and continues to have on my life even as I enter middle age. I met many of my dearest friends as a child at SJC. In fact, six of the people in our wedding party have shared camp with me at some point in our lives (it’s actually seven, if you count Jeffrey, who once attended Camp Westminster, where the camp is held). I stayed in Cabin 8 during my last visit and took pictures of many familiar names, including my own from as far back as 1983. I also saw an old friend, Karin Chung, whose nine-year-old daughter, Jamison, was I believe one of the first second-generation campers. Coincidentally, Karin was the person who introduced me to Grace back in college.

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Well, there’s really a lifetime of memories, all of which I couldn’t possibly share here. Looking back, all I know is that my experiences at SJC have shaped a lot of who I am today. My involvement as an adult has been by far more rewarding and enlightening as anything I’ve done professionally. Looking forward, all I can hope for is that my own children will one day be able to attend as campers. Here are some pictures and also a couple of movies (precamp, planning) from a few years ago.