Steve Kalb, Holt’s director of adoptee services, shares what drew him to lead Holt’s camp program — and what’s sustained his enthusiasm over the past 11 years.
During my freshman year at the University of Iowa in 1995, a friend of mine suggested we become camp counselors at one of the local United Methodist youth camps. “We just take care of kids, lead some activities, and get to live by the lake all summer. It’ll be awesome!” my friend told me. How could I lose? Little did I know, I was about to embark on a summer that would change my life forever. Never having attended camps before, the environment was like nothing I’d ever known. It was a place where time slows down and blurs past you all at once. You’re completely uncomfortable living out of a suitcase and sleeping bag but it all fades into the background as the community and relationships make you feel at home. It’s a place where campers and staff reinvent themselves because they’re unbound from the role they’re expected to play back home. The high school offensive lineman can be the lead singer for his cabin’s doo-wap skit. The introverted Pokémon player confidently directs her team at the challenge course. The unassuming piano player wins the tie-breaking game by capturing the flag. It’s a flexible and forgiving space where awkwardness and vulnerability rise to the surface for everyone to celebrate.
Despite the openness camp fosters, as an Asian Adoptee camp counselor and subsequent camp director in Iowa, I felt little space to be anyone but the farm boy from Oelwein. I wasn’t able to take advantage of camp’s biggest benefit, optimal conditions for self-exploration, because I was always reassuring campers, parents and co-workers that I was as Midwest as they were. I wore seed corn-branded clothing, spoke with a Midwest drawl, and thoroughly enjoyed Jell-o cake and breaded pork tenderloins (some of the Midwest’s finest cuisine). This mindset left me with less room to explore different ways of being or trying different types of roles, for fear that people around me would forget that I was “just like them.”
After the summer of 2004, I knew I had to make a shift in careers. I was exhausted defending my “midwesterness” at every promotional event and different camp setting. This constant pleading for personal and professional validity eroded my self-worth to the point I began questioning my own belonging in the very place I was raised. So I explored graduate schools, thought about getting back into elementary school teaching, taking a gap year, anything where my job performance didn’t seem hinged on my ability to convince people that I was just like them. Because I was beginning to understand that I wasn’t. No matter what I wore, how I spoke, or what foods I enjoyed eating, my authenticity as an Iowan would always be questioned because I was Asian. Up until that point in my life, my small town and close circle of friends had insulated me from this hard truth — the hard truth that I would never be viewed the same as everyone else.
This is where my Holt Camp story begins. As fate would have it, I landed in Eugene in 2005 to direct Holt’s Adoptee camps, where, ironically, my largest asset to the campers and families wasn’t my professional experience or education; it was the fact that I was just…like…them. I was someone who could relate to their experience of being an outsider within. Being an Adoptee was all that was necessary to fit nicely into the new environment. While the question of “where are you from” still confused me — as it does with most Adoptees — my new community didn’t challenge my right to be there, as it had in the past. It was strange feeling so connected and accepted in a new environment. My life to that point had been filled with wonderful family and friends, but new environments were always challenging because of the complexity of my identity. It was just too much work explaining to people how, why, when, yes I love my parents, no I don’t know my Korean family, yes I speak English, no I don’t want to learn Korean, and on and on and on. At Holt camp, despite being with a new group of people, those questions only emerged because someone would mention how great it is not to have to answer those questions!
I’ve been here for 11 camp seasons now and have seen the youngest campers from my first summer graduate high school and move off to college. This fact has given me pause. How have I been able to sustain an 11-year career at this camp when I could barely tolerate 5 back in Iowa? What’s been worth sticking around all these years? It turns out Holt Adoptee Camp allows me to have my camp cake and eat it, too. Every summer I get to witness the incredible power of the camp environment turn vulnerabilities into strengths, while simultaneously enjoying the freedom of being true to myself because my Adoptee identity is seen as an asset, not a liability. Much like at other camps where I’ve worked, we encourage our Adoptees to “try on” new personas or identities. But I’ve found that Holt campers are usually too busy simply enjoying life without the burden of society’s presumed identities — foreigner, outsider, immigrant, charity case, among the worst examples. Holt camp is a place where Adoptees are free to be themselves, but more importantly, they’re free to explore what it means to be themselves with the support of others who are like them. It’s a liberating feeling all Adoptees should experience. I wish I would have found it sooner.
And I’m so glad that so many Adoptees are benefiting from Holt Adoptee Camp, as so many parents attest in feedback at the end of every season:
“My son loves that ‘he can meet kids like him who he can trust.’ He felt safe.” — Erica Wurtz, parent to camper Gavin Brayton, 12
“It gave my teen an environment to meet other adoptees. It also provided a safe place to explore sensitive topics relating to identity and adoption.” — Jacilyn Monaghan, parent to camper Shae Monaghan, 15
“[What I like best about camp is] how it makes my daughter feel when she is there and the confidence she has when she comes home. It’s hard to describe the joy I get from hearing her endless stories. I know that it’s where she feels free to be herself and part of an amazing community. It’s a beautiful thing.” — Natalie Ransegnola, parent of camper Abby Ransegnola, 16
“[What I like best about camp is] Jayden’s ability to talk with other adoptees who are at all different stages in life. It has allowed her to know there’s other safe people to talk with that aren’t just her family. She has stated in the past that she didn’t have any friends who are adopted and we don’t really understand how she feels because we are not adopted. Thank you for your continued support of all adopted families! We’re always thankful that we chose Holt!” — Tricia Waggoner, parent of camper Jayden Waggoner, 9
Steve Kalb | Director of Adoptee Services