Recently, Holt’s senior writer, Robin Munro, sat down for an interview with Josiah Bell, a Holt adoptee born in Korea and raised in Alabama. This summer will be Josiah’s seventh season working at Holt’s adoptee camps – a six-week commitment for leadership staff, five weeks for counselors. When not at camp, Josiah works as a freelance artist specializing in portrait work for adoptive families. He currently lives in Birmingham, but plans to move to Brooklyn, NY at the end of the summer. View a couple of Josiah’s adoptee portraits below.
This is my sixth summer on the leadership staff. The first year, I was a counselor.
What are your responsibilities as a leadership staff member?
We prepare the camp curriculum and schedule, and manage the counselors and camp staff.
How do you prepare the curriculum every year?
We have a foundation of subject matter that we talk about, such as race and identity. Every year, we tweak it. We brainstorm ideas of new and fun ways to relate those ideas to campers.
What’s an example of a fun way you relate issues to campers?
We always talk about identity on the first day. That helps us ease into being able to discuss other subjects, such as race and adoption, in a group setting.
When we talk about identity with the youngest group, we ask them to name TV characters that have multiple identities. They usually come up with super heroes and Hannah Montana. We talk about how Hannah Montana is sometimes Miley Cyrus, but she’s also a daughter, a sister and a student.
We always close that day with having the campers write down as many of their identities as they can come up with.
What do you hope the campers will get out of that exercise?
We want them to understand that we have multiple identities and they’re always changing – and that’s a good thing.
We definitely make the point that being adopted is an identity. That helps the campers acknowledge that about themselves, and empowers them to take on that identity with confidence.
I went one year when I was 10 or 11. I don’t remember that much. I do remember being really nervous and scared. I grew up in Alabama and flew to the Midwest Camp with my little sister, who is adopted from Vietnam. It was my first time flying somewhere by myself. And it was my first time being around other adoptees.
Growing up, did you know very many other adoptees in your community?
No. My parents sent us to Holt camp to kind of throw that out there and see if that was something we wanted to pursue – getting to know other adoptees. At the time, neither of us did.
I did have a fun time, though. It was mostly about making friends and hanging out.
What brought you back to Holt camp, years later?
The summer after my senior year of high school, my mother took me on one of the Holt family tours. I was resistant at first, but it ended up being a great experience for me. Being older, I was able to take more out of being with other adoptees.
The experience made me want to be around other adoptees. So when someone on the trip mentioned that they were a counselor at a Holt camp, I called Steve (Holt’s camp director, Steve Kalb).
So, your first year you worked as a counselor. How is that different from being on the leadership staff?
Being a counselor, you have more direct interaction with the campers. Your relationship is a little different because you’re with them 24/7. I enjoyed it. You feel like they look up to you. As leadership staff, you still have a relationship with the campers, but it’s different.
As a counselor, did you have one-on-one conversations with campers about issues that came up for them?
It just comes up naturally when sitting in the cabin, because we’ve all had similar experiences. We talk about identity, or family issues. It’s a cool opportunity not only for the campers, but also for me to share what’s on my mind.
That’s what brought me back the next year – the friendships I developed at camp.
Do you have many friends outside of camp who are also adoptees?
Not back home in Birmingham. But my relationships with Steve (Kalb) and Michael (Tessier) have become some of the strongest relationships in my life. (Michael Tessier is Holt’s youth adoptee coordinator).
Besides great friends, what do you gain from going to Holt camp, year after year?
I feel more comfortable and more confident with who I am. Since the tour, I think I’ve changed a lot. Before my involvement with the adoptee community, I was a completely different person. I attribute that to camp, because of the friends I’ve made. It’s little things that have changed. I’m naturally an introvert. Now I’m comfortable enough to have a conversation with a stranger.
Summer camp often creates that feeling of belonging that builds confidence in kids. Do you think you would have benefited as much from any camp? Or do you think it’s unique to Holt camp?
For me, it’s about being around other adoptees. For 6 weeks, I feel really good about myself. Because of camp, that (feeling) has carried over throughout the years.
I’ve been to other summer camps. I don’t know if I could commit this much time to another camp because I wouldn’t be as passionate about it. It’s easy to relate to campers and counselors at Holt camp. The relationship is more unique. We all have friends at home, but those friends can’t instantly understand things about you. The atmosphere at camp creates instant comfort.
When Steve Kalb became camp director, he shifted the focus of Holt camps from birth culture to the adoptee experience. Do you think campers get more out of exploring adoptee issues than learning about their birth culture?
One thing we talk about is that culture is good, but what makes camp special to campers isn’t culture. What makes it special is about being around other adoptees. Focusing on that is more beneficial to everyone.
Steve’s main point is that adoptees just wanted more time to hang out with each other. Both parents and campers have for the most part responded really well to the curriculum. The activities change every year as well. We keep the foundation of the subject matter, but we try to make it interesting for the returning campers.
You did at one time attend a birth culture camp in Georgia, though. How was that different?
You’re still around adoptees, which is why I go to camp. The culture aspect is fun, but for me, an adoptee camp is more educational. I feel that everyone at camp can relate to adoption issues, whereas not everyone can relate to or find interest in all the cultural activities.
What is your favorite camp activity?
We have electives in one-hour sessions. I lead an art elective. It’s a time I get to hang out with campers directly. Each elective has a project the campers are working on to present to parents on the last day. That’s always fun.
Seven years is a long time. And 6 weeks is a big commitment. How long do you foresee yourself working at Holt camps?
I’m not sure. I think the program is really strong and I really respect what Michael and Steve do. I definitely support the program. That’s why I keep coming back.