We’re excited to introduce you to the always interesting and insightful Pam Sweetser. We hope you’ll enjoy our conversation with Pam below.
Pam, thanks for joining us, excited to have you contributing your stories and insights. Is there a heartwarming story from your career that you look back on?
There are so many heartwarming stories form my experience as ED of Heritage Camps for Adoptive Families, it is hard to pick just one. Our camps are for children who have been adopted from around the world and here in the U.S., and for their families. The camps provide an opportunity for adoptees of all ages to feel a sense of belonging and develop a stronger sense of who they are and where they came from.
So often over the past 31 years I have heard parents say that camp is the ONE place their kids really feel like they belong, like they fit in. It is also a place for parents to learn and feel supported in their adoption journey.
Ultimately though, it is the kids themselves who warm my heart when they express how camp makes them feel, This is form a young adult who started attending camp as a preschoolers:
For over 20 years now, Chinese Heritage Camp has been a part of me. It has watched me grow up into a confident, inspired, empowered young woman; it has watched me transition from camper to counselor to presenter to coordinator. Camp has given me opportunities to lead, reflect, and share with others. Camp has given me a place, both in the tangible and intangible sense, where my adoption story is just one of many, where I cannot only learn from others but teach others, a place where I can build upon life bonds and make new connections, a place where I will always feel comfortable crying to “Happy Adoption Day” and feel nostalgic for all the memories I had there growing up. Chinese Heritage Camp knows so much about me, more than I likely even realize.
Chinese Heritage Camp has given me life, love, happiness, and a place to soul search and discover myself and where I can help the next generation do the same. Chinese Heritage Camp is, and always will be, a piece of my puzzle and heart, and without it in my life all these years, I would not feel complete.
Pam, before we move on to more of these sorts of questions, can you take some time to bring our readers up to speed on you and what you do?
About Heritage Camps For Adoptive Families Our Mission
Heritage Camps for Adoptive Families, Inc. (HCAF) serves as a post-adoption resource and advocate for children, adults, and families with diverse heritages.
We accomplish our mission by facilitating events which provide culturally relevant and family-centered experiences for every member of the family.
These events provide individuals and families with both a deeper sense of community and an individual identity. It is our goal that all adoptees will develop a knowledge of themselves and their culture of origin and that families will have a better awareness of, and sense of pride in, their adopted family member’s birth heritage. HCAF assists children, adults, and families in becoming a part of a larger community “just like themselves,” with shared experiences, challenges, and opportunities.
Who We Serve
We focus on supporting international and domestic adoptive families, including adopted children, parents, non-adopted siblings, and extended family. Additionally, our camps are a resource for foster parents and waiting parents.
Adult adoptees are an essential part of the HCAF community. We believe in the importance of being guided by the experiences and perspectives of adoptees, and work to ensure that our programming amplifies their voices.
HCAF began in 1991 when 40 families with children adopted from Korea came together for a short weekend of Korean cultural immersion. From there, Korean Heritage Camp expanded to four days and many more families. Just four years later, we incorporated as a nonprofit organization, and have grown to serve over 1,000 adoptive families annually from across the nation at our nine camps, serving children born in over 40 countries.
Since our incorporation in 1995, HCAF’s Executive Director, Pam Sweetser, has provided vital leadership and management to the organization, initially on a volunteer basis. With eight other adoptive parents, Pam served on the first Board of Directors, and was the sole HCAF staff member from her appointment as Executive Director in 1995 until 2005, when the first part-time support employee was hired.
HCAF’s staff is comprised of four staff members, but the bulk of the organization’s extensive operations has always been handled by volunteers. HCAF’s team of volunteers includes camp parents, community members, and camp alumni — totaling 2,500+ individuals contributing over 650,000 volunteer hours each year.
With a strong history of smart growth, financial stability, and volunteer investment – plus the passionate involvement of our camp families – HCAF has made a difference in the lives of thousands of children and their families for 31 years.
Can you tell us about a time you’ve had to pivot?
Our camps are all about connection, between campers and counselors, campers and community, campers and parents, and especially campers and campers! Being together for four days every summer is essential to what we do. When the pandemic hit in March 2020, we had to very quickly pivot, cancelling the camps and figuring out a way to keep the connection going virtually. It was very difficult and so dissapointing to our campers and families,
But, pivot we did! We held every camp virtually in 2020 and unfortunately again in 2021. We worked with our volunteers to make them as interactive, creative, meaningful, and fun as we possibly could. Though the in-person connection wasn’t there, amazingly enough, the campers who joined us virtually DID manage to connect over Zoom fairly well! We learned a whole new way of doing things, and though virtual will NEVER replace our in-person camps, which thankfully we are going back to this year, there are aspects of them that we may be able to continue. We also provided webinars for parents and teens, online craft and cooking classes for all ages, and kept communications going all year long. Families repeatedly thanked us for the effort we put in to keeping the connections going in the midst of a pandemic.
Do you have any insights you can share related to maintaining high team morale?
One of the most significant aspects of my job, and the job of every staff member, is the recruitment, retention, and support of our team of volunteers! We have four paid staff members, and everything else we accomplish is done by our amazing volunteers. Our counselors, most of our community presenters and teachers, and many many adoptive parents work to get each camp off the ground and running smoothly. It truly does take a village for us, and we are lucky to have such a strong one.
The most important advice I can give in regards to managing a team of volunteers is to appreciate them non-stop. They need to know that THEY are the heart and soul of our camps, and that what they do, from the smallest task to the largest, has a direct impact on our campers and their families. If they are putting in the effort on their won time, sometimes taking time away from their families and friends, to make camp happen, they need to know that it means something.
You can give them little gifts, or a thank you note, but letting them know personally, face-to-face that they are appreciated does the most good. I think this carries into paid staff as well. You can give raises and write emails, but until you look them in the eye to thank them directly, t just doesn’t mean as much. People need to know that what they are doing in your organization matters.