Bringing Home Cultures They Left Behind

Sravya Yeleswara, 17, of Centreville teaches children how to dance in traditional and Bollywood styles. Campers sampled dance, martial arts and crafts, among other activities.
Sravya Yeleswara, 17, of Centreville teaches children how to dance in traditional and Bollywood styles. Campers sampled dance, martial arts and crafts, among other activities. (Photos By Mark Gong -- The Washington Post)
By C. Woodrow Irvin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 10, 2006

They came from all over the region and from as far away as Norfolk and Baltimore to learn about faraway countries.

One day last week, one group learned an Indian dance while another practiced taekwondo stances. Nearby, Minda Swett, 12, of Manassas was one of nearly a dozen busy at an arts and crafts table, carefully cutting and gluing bits and pieces to form paper dragons.

"It's my sixth year," Swett said. "I like all the stuff, like arts and crafts and learning about adoption. I like taekwondo. I feel like a normal kid," she said with a smile.

Swett, born in China's Xinjiang province, was at Culture Camp, where each summer children come to learn about the countries of their birth.

The kids were adopted from countries in East Asia and Eastern Europe. For three days they bond over arts and crafts, music and dance, even the food and athletic traditions of their native lands.

The camp is sponsored by the Washington-based Adoption Service Information Agency Inc., which has operated it for a decade. Children in pre-kindergarten to sixth grade attend. The location, at a church, alternates between the Fairfax County and Montgomery County sides of the Potomac.

Anna E. Petrillo, ASIA's education director, runs Culture Camp. "The mission of the camp," she said, "is to bring together children who have been adopted . . . to learn about the different cultures they have been adopted from -- we have children here adopted from Korea, China, India, Thailand, Vietnam, Ukraine and Russia -- and to have them experience cultural activities: dancing, language and arts from those various countries, together in one place."

Perhaps as important as introducing the children to a distinct cultural heritage from their ancestry is the value they find in socializing and taking part in organized activities with a hundred others who have been adopted, said Maureen Evans, ASIA's executive director.

"There is something about being adopted and talking with other people who have been adopted," Evans said. "They share that common experience, and that's a really important part for kids. This gives a kid a chance to feel this is a regular, normal thing: 'There are other kids like me.' "

She said that though states and local jurisdictions don't keep statistics, the State Department tracked 20,000 international adoptions in the United States last year. Most of the children came from China, Russia, Guatemala, South Korea and Ukraine. About 80 percent of the children who attended last week's camp were from South Korea.

Evans said that the campers seem to greatly enjoy the experience and that many return year after year, some even going on to become volunteer counselors. The camp's assistant director, Amy C. Laakso, is one of those campers-turned-counselors. She said that children adopted from abroad who do not have opportunities to learn about their native cultures "would be missing a big part of themselves."

"I used to be a camper, and getting to know where I come from is very important to me," she continued. Laakso said it is important that internationally adopted children "know where they come from and how much that culture really influences them and creates who they are."

At the camp last week, held at St. Paul Chung Korean Catholic Church near Fairfax City, Adam Kulawiec, 8, who was born in South Korea and lives in the District, nodded proudly when asked if he was good at folding paper into shapes, which was one of the camp's activities. His father, Bob, is a parent volunteer at the camp, which his biological daughter, Claire, also attended. All siblings are welcome to attend Culture Camp.

"We adopted Adam through ASIA in 1998," Bob Kulawiec said. The family started attending Culture Camp three years ago, he said, because "we feel it is necessary for Adam to learn as much as he can about the culture of his country of birth. This is one of the ways we do that.

"One of the huge advantages of living in Washington is that there are so many internationally adopted kids," Kulawiec said. "So both Adam and Claire have as friends in their . . . school plenty of kids who are adopted from other countries. But specifically making friends . . . who are adopted from the same country is really important."

For information on Culture Camp, contact ASIA at 301-587-7068, or visit

© 2006 The Washington Post Company