Brothers' Family Grows in Unusual Ways

Chanda Copeland, left, Denise Robinson and brothers Andre and Deon Thomas have created their own version of a modern family.
Chanda Copeland, left, Denise Robinson and brothers Andre and Deon Thomas have created their own version of a modern family. (By Julia Feldmeier -- The Washington Post)
By John Kelly
Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Who benefits from Camp Moss Hollow? Kids like the ones my assistant, Julia Feldmeier, writes about today.

Family. How to define it? Where does it start and stop? And how to explain the blurry lines that connect strangers, that make them family?

For Deon and Andre Thomas, family begins in the nuclear sense, with their mother and their six brothers and sisters. Andre, 10, and Deon, 13, are the youngest -- boys who love football and basketball and video games.

They have long eyelashes and shy smiles that belie their energy -- both have attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, so there is always something atwitter. It can be Deon, folding a plastic bag into tiny squares, or it can be Andre, whipping out a piece of paper to play hangman. It can be both of them, tapping their foreheads lightly on the kitchen table, a maneuver begun by Deon but copied by Andre, each unleashing that slow smile as they drum in unison.

With them at the table are Aunt Chanda and Aunt Denise -- also their family, if not their flesh and blood. Chanda Copeland is Deon's godmother, a title bestowed on her when Chanda's sister married Deon's uncle and Deon lived with the couple for a year. Chanda, who is single and without children, came to love Deon like one of her own, even after her sister divorced his uncle, even after he moved back in with his mom.

It's a blurry line, indeed.

Aunt Denise is Denise Robinson, the boys' foster mom. They've lived with her in Fort Washington since December 2005, when they were taken from their mother, who couldn't care for them. Denise opened her home and heart. She has two biological children -- a son, 22, and daughter, 17 -- who still live at home, but she says she wanted to give back to the community, wanted to help kids in need.

She got the two boys -- who she says "fill a part of my family" -- but she also got Chanda, who lives nearby and has taken an active role in caring for the boys.

And when two people love and care for the same children, day after day, another bond emerges.

"I made a great friend, a lifelong friend," Chanda says of Denise, who nods in agreement.

The boys see their siblings and their mom every Sunday, and they try to get together for birthdays and holidays. They are well-adjusted in their new home, with Denise and her children, and Chanda, too. But a new family doesn't displace the old -- more people to love and to love them doesn't mean that there isn't a void, an ache for their mom.

So when Family and Child Services, the nonprofit group that runs Camp Moss Hollow, where the boys will return this week for the second summer, offers tickets to a D.C. United soccer game, -- one each for Denise, Chanda, Deon and Andre -- the boys are ecstatic. But then Deon tugs at Chanda's sleeve, lifts his long lashes and asks if maybe they could get a fifth ticket, so that his mom can come, too.

That's the thing about family, after all. It grows in all sorts of wonderful ways, but you always remember where it began.

How to Help

Many a lifelong friend has been made in the cabin of a summer camp. A bunkmate or canoeing buddy can be as close as a brother or sister. You can help forge those relationships by donating to our Send a Kid to Camp campaign.

We're about halfway through this year's fund drive. We've made great progress, but we still have a ways to go before the campaign ends July 26. The cost for one week at camp for one child is $710. A gift of any amount can help make the dream of camp a reality. Here's how:

Make a check or money order payable to "Send a Kid to Camp" and mail it to P.O. Box 96237, Washington, D.C. 20090-6237.

To contribute online, go to Click on the icon that says "Make a Donation."

To donate by MasterCard or Visa by phone, call 202-334-5100 and follow the message's instructions on our taped message.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company