An interview with Steve Kalb, Holt’s camp director and post-adoption services social worker. Every year, Steve organizes and designs curriculum for Holt’s six adoptee camps, now held in Oregon, Iowa, Georgia, California, Wisconsin and New Jersey. He also assists with background information requests and birth search counseling. Steve is a Holt International adoptee, born in South Korea and raised in Iowa.
I was a camp director for another camp, a church camp. I started that job right after I graduated from college and did that for five years. I was looking for another camp director position and that’s what led me to Holt, in January of 2005.
What’s your educational background?
I have a bachelor’s in education and a master’s in social work.
Why did you decide to pursue a camp director position instead of a teaching position?
I think the camp environment is a very powerful environment. I think I have a better platform for creating the kind of learning environment I want for children in camping than in education. I have more creative license.
Did you grow up going to camp?
I didn’t go to any camps period as a kid. The Holt Midwest Camp didn’t even exist when I was growing up.
You have said that the need for a strong adoptee community guides your advocacy work at Holt. Growing up, did you struggle to find an adoptee community?
My sisters are adopted. But there wasn’t a community of adoptees around me. I don’t think an adoptee community really even exists. That’s the whole purpose of my work.
How do you envision creating an adoptee community?
First, we need to establish an adoptee identity. We need to allow people to identify as adopted – to have that as an option in addition to Asian or Black or Latino.
Do you feel there’s too much emphasis placed on race?
No, I think there’s too much emphasis placed on the birth culture experience. Racial background doesn’t get enough emphasis. Historically, adoptees have been identified with their birth culture; “Korean adoptee” is typical. Birth culture isn’t satisfying for adoptees for explaining why they are different. It is until they are 4 or 5 years old, but then birth culture as presented and prioritized for them does not give enough rationale for why they are different. As they grow older, they require a more complex explanation.
My work here has really shined the spotlight on this as an area that could really use addressing.
How have you shaped Holt camps to address these issues and meet the needs of young adoptees?
The camp program is designed around the adoptee experience. Activities revolve around adoption, identity, race and racism, birth parents and birth search. These are changes I introduced in 2006. In 2005, during my first year, it was still the old system of birth culture. It wasn’t working for me, or the kids.
The predominant model of adoptee camp still revolves around a birth culture and ethnic heritage approach. Ours is the only camp that focuses on the adoptee experience.
How else has camp changed over the past 6 years?
We’ve really tried to bring parents into the fold by offering day camp and closing day activities. That provides them with an education and orientation to the program.
Describe a typical day at camp.
A vast majority of the camp is taken up by games, swimming, typical outdoor activities. We have two activities a day – one in the morning and one in the evening – that focus on adoptee issues. Generally, we use activities that allow them to think about how others see them and how they see themselves.
What is your role at camp?
I’m just there to make sure the program’s running smoothly. I do facilitate some of the curriculum discussions.
What do you hope campers will gain from the experience – and that maybe you missed out on growing up?
I want the campers to understand that they are not alone in their adoption story and experience. I never really felt alone in my experience as kid. But it’s something that I never had the chance to talk about growing up. I think there are thousands of kids like me experiencing similar situations.
You never talked about adoption with your two adopted siblings?
No, we never talked about it. We’re finding a lot of sibling groups not talking to each other. They really need their peers.
As a post-adoption services social worker, you also help adoptees with birth search counseling and accessing background information. That’s a very important role …
Basically, I end up being a listening ear for adoptees who are searching or are being searched for. I allow them to grieve or feel whatever they are feeling.
Do you ever share your own experience as an adoptee?
If they ask me, sure.
While working at Holt, you’re also pursuing a PhD in Social Work and Social Research focusing on adoptee community empowerment models. What does that mean?
My focus has been about trying to better understand why adoptees are having such a difficult time being heard. I am trying to raise the level of importance adoptee experience plays in adoption practice.
The camps have driven a lot of what I study. They’re a great model of adoptee empowerment and organizing.
So your work at Holt has really aided your graduate research. How has what you’ve learned at camp informed Holt’s other services to children and families?
Every year we learn from kids what they want and what they need. What we’re learning at camp is changing how we run camp. What we learn at camp is also changing parent education – the Parents in Process curriculum.
Camp offers a wealth of data and information. There’s a lot of potential.