Group of girls holds up origami and smiles

Mental Health at Holt Adoptee Camp: A Q&A

Adoptee and mental health professional Jena Kunimune attended Holt Adoptee Camp this past summer to provide mental health support for campers and counselors.

Holt Adoptee Camp 2023 met in Wisconsin, New Jersey and Oregon this year! There were 179 campers, 16 counselors and five members of camp leadership — they all had a great time enjoying summer fun and also connecting over heart-to-heart discussions about adoptee identity.

“[Having a mental health specialist there] proved to be a great way to reach campers who were struggling,” says Elliot Bliss, co-camp director. “Jena made camp hugely successful, she could communicate to families what was going on with their kids, and provided an empathetic, trained ear for campers and staff alike.”

In the following question and response, Jena shares some thoughts and insights about her Holt camp experience, advocating for the necessity of having mental health resources available to adoptees!

Q: What is your background with mental health and therapy?

Growing up, I always had a strong interest in mental health and therapy. I studied psychology at the University of Oregon and worked in psychology research labs to gain research and clinical skills. After graduating, I worked as a mental health skills trainer at a residential treatment center where I gained clinical experience. Working in residential treatment was the push that I needed to apply for graduate school and become a therapist!

Being an adoptee myself, I have always had an interest in researching the impact of adoption on our mental health as transnational and transracial adoptees. I decided to join a couples and family therapy program at the University of Oregon so that I could work with the adoptee population and help adoptees navigate exploration of their identity and the complexities that come with being an adoptee.

Q: Did you provide training or input for counselors and leadership?

Yes, I provided training and input for the camp counselors and leadership on mental health support. The leadership team and I would discuss how we could be proactive about supporting campers with behaviors and mental health needs so that camp could be a fun experience for all campers.  

Panel of camp counselors sits around table while campers watch
Holt camp counselors and Jena (far left) holding a Q&A session for campers’ questions about adoptee identity.

Q: What interested you about accepting a position with Holt Adoptee Camp as a mental health specialist?

I am a strong advocate for the importance of supporting mental health for everyone. I know that camp comes with its challenges, and it would be essential to have someone that could help train the staff to support campers and take care of themselves during a demanding camp summer.

“Campers also shared how much they would love for their families to have better training around how to communicate and validate their adoptee experience. A way families can start to validate that experience is by letting their children know that they are welcome to talk about their adoptee experience and ask questions at any time. Leaving the door open for conversation can work wonders.”

Being an adoptee, it felt like a no-brainer to accept a role where I could work specifically with the adoptee population and support campers with any mental health needs. This is exactly why I got into the field in the first place!

Q: How was your experience?

The experience was a rollercoaster of emotions. Overall, it was extremely rewarding and I have made some friends from the team that I hope will last a lifetime. Being able to be in an all-adoptee space was profoundly impactful — in a positive way! — for me. It was incredible to see the relationships form between campers and watch their level of comfort to share their adoption stories grow. I was blown away by the amount of insight that the campers at every age had around their adoptee identity! 

Q: Why do you think it’s important for Holt Camp to have a mental health professional in attendance?

I think it is essential to have a mental health professional in attendance at every Holt Camp. While the camp was not focused on mental health specifically, there were many mental health related behaviors where I consulted with the counselor team and camper to find the best ways to support them. It felt heartbreaking to hear the campers’ struggles, yet also inspiring to have campers taking the initiative and asking for help when they noticed that they needed additional emotional support.

Q: What do you recommend for adoptees and adoptive families wanting to pursue emotional and mental health?

For adoptive families and adoptees seeking mental health support, I want them to know that there are clinicians out there who are ready to help.

I would also recommend that Holt emphasize the importance of families attending post-adoption events and seminars. At the parent panels at the end of each camp, we had some incredible adoptees share their stories and recommendations about ways that families can best support adoptees. Campers also shared how much they would love for their families to have better training around how to communicate and validate their adoptee experience. A way families can start to validate that experience is by letting their children know that they are welcome to talk about their adoptee experience and ask questions at any time. Leaving the door open for conversation can work wonders.

While it can be difficult to hear, I also want to emphasize the importance of the adoptive parents and families allowing space for the adoptee to share their authentic experience. As adoptees, we can sometimes end up holding our own emotions and our adoptive family’s emotions at the same time. This leads to us censoring our authentic experience and needs as an adoptee. As the adoptive family, learning to process your own feelings around your adoptive child’s experience and being able to hold space for hard truths is crucial to the familial relationship.

Q: What were some challenges you faced at camp? Some highlights?

Several challenges came up during the camp. There was a significant increase in mental health related behaviors that required my attention. The leadership team and I had multiple opportunities to figure out how to best address each mental health related incident, which helped us care for the adoptee as well as develop strategies for the future.

The closing ceremony was one of the biggest highlights for me at Holt Adoptee Camp. Being part of the closing ceremony and seeing the emotional connections and friendship bonds formed between campers is so powerful!

Girl stands on stand up paddleboard on lake
Jena on a stand-up paddleboard at Holt Camp New Jersey!

Q: Were there any interactions you had with campers that were particularly impactful, for you or for them?

I had many interactions with campers that were particularly impactful. A common theme I heard among campers was the need for a safe place where they could process their adoptee identity, other parts of their identity and the trauma that they have experienced from adoption. It was extremely impactful to hear about the mental health related concerns, especially the serious ones. Hearing how many campers needed someone to hear how much they were struggling was impactful and was a great reminder about why I got into this field.

It was also disheartening to hear about the microaggressions and the violent aggressions that many of the campers had experienced as a result of the anti-Asian rhetoric during the COVID-19 pandemic. We had a microaggression topic for one of our adoption talks, and it felt heartbreaking to have to tell children ages 9-17 that they would need to assess their level of safety before responding to a microaggression. My primary goal was helping campers learn ways to respond to microaggressions and aggressions in a way that could best support their emotional safety, but also the safety of their physical body.

Q: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

I think that Holt Adoptee Camp is an incredible experience, and it could not have been done without the amazing staff that help to run it. Our leadership and camp counselor teams are some of the most compassionate people. They all look forward to coming together to create this amazing experience for the campers.

Running a camp is not easy, and it is full of sleepless nights, many cups of coffee and a team of people who are dedicated to creating connection and an all-adoptee space for campers. Being part of the camp staff requires one to three weeks of our summer and taking time off work to help. I think that post-adoption services such as summer camps and increasing access to mental health support for adoptees are some of the best ways that adoption agencies can validate the adoptee experience.

Thank you for sharing, Jena! We are so grateful for your impact at Holt Adoptee Camp this summer!

group of girls playing tug of war at adoptee summer camp

Holt Adoptee Camps

A week adoptees will always remember! Make new friends, try new things and discuss issues unique to adoptees. Holt’s overnight camps are open to adoptees ages 9-17.

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