Giving gifts for parents who can’t

Supplied with presents from Kids2Kids, Rotary Club members are spending the week at a camp that puts a little magic back in Christmas for youngsters whose mothers, fathers are in prison

A BAG WAS filled with gifts for some lucky children at Camp Reunite by Kirsten Coenen, a member of the Rotary Club of Port Washington-Saukville, and her son Henry at the Kids2Kids warehouse in Grafton on Dec. 11. Photo by Sam Arendt
Ozaukee Press staff

Members of the Rotary Club of Port Washington-Saukville have extended their holiday season to this week.

Two weeks before Christmas, about a dozen club members, some accompanied by family members, played Santa, selecting toys from the Kapco Kids2Kids drive for youngsters to receive from their parents.

This week, members of the club are spending a day at Camp Reunite in Campbellsport, which works with children who have a parent incarcerated at either Taycheedah Correctional Institute in Fond du Lac or Kettle Moraine Correctional Institute in Plymouth.

Club members will be doing everything from arts projects to playing games with the youngsters and serving a meal at the camp, which began Tuesday and runs through Friday.

Rotary received a $3,000 district grant this year to finance its support of Camp Reunite.

“I had never heard of this before, and I don’t think many people have,” Rotarian Robert Fechner, who was in charge of the club’s efforts, said, adding the club was behind the initiative from the minute it heard about the concept.

“As soon as it was brought up, it just clicked,” he said.

“Personally, I never thought about it before, but if you’re incarcerated, your kids don’t get Christmas presents from you. It’s super sad. There are a lot of children out there who might be forgotten.”

Originally, the club planned to spend the money on gifts for the roughly 50 children who will be at Camp Reunite’s winter camp. Instead, Fechner said, they headed to Kapco armed with a list of items each children might like.

“It’s like Santa’s warehouse,” Fechner said of Kapco, where items donated to the Kids2Kids drive are stored. “They have piles of everything you can imagine.”

Club members were able to select three items for each child, something he said “is super fun.”

Fechner was joined by his daughter Lilly, 12, who he called “the expert.”

The gifts selected by club members were given to the parents, who will give them to their children.

“We’re playing Santa for the parents,” Fechner said.

But that’s not where Rotary’s involvement ends. Since they didn’t buy the gifts, club members are using the grant to support one day of the camp, funding the activities and volunteering their time to help out.

“It’s really a meaningful thing,” Fechner said. “You kind of stop and think about it and it makes sense — just being there and supporting the whole thing shows we’re all in this together.”

That support is critical, Camp Reunite Executive Director Kenzie Gonzalez said, noting the camp provides unique opportunities for children and their parents.

The camp is the brainchild of Neil Willenson, vice president of community relations at Kapco, who was a foster parent to a child whose mother was incarcerated, Gonzalez said.

It began in 2018 as a way to forge connections between children who find themselves in the same situation and provide them with much needed support.

Aimed at children ages 7 to 17, the camp is held at Turning Rivers in Campbellsport. There are two summer sessions at the camp, each for about 50 children who get the chance to partake in unique activities, learn from one another and receive support as they navigate a world without their parent.

“There’s a lot of stigma and shame,” Gonzalez said. “They know everyone there can relate to that.”

Many of the children form friendships that continue long after camp has ended, she added.

“Having that person to reach out to is huge for them,” she said.

Twice during the week, the children visit their parents in prison — but it isn’t the typical visitation held in a grim room with little, if any, contact allowed. It’s held in a large space, often outside, and families can participate in a variety of activities.

“We essentially bring camp to the prison,” Gonzalez said, bringing in regular activities for parents and children to participate in. “It’s really cool to see the visits in action. It’s like bringing life into prison.

“It’s for the kids, but it does help the parents too. A lot of the parents tell us, ‘This is the first time I can parent sober.’ The child can see the parent healthy. It’s kind of like a fresh start.”

For some children, it’s the first time they’ve visited their parent, Gonzalez said, so the camp staff helps explain what to expect and afterward helps them deal with their feelings.

“It’s not traumatic, but it can be emotional,” she said.

About 50 of the youngsters who attend summer camp also attend the winter camp.

The prison allows the children to bring in a gift for the parents, Gonzalez said, typically a small, simple gift such as a framed photo. And the parent gets to present their child with holiday gifts, too.   

“It’s not about the tangible things,” she said. “They get to have that important, meaningful tradition. It’s about, ‘my parent knows what I like and picked this out for me.’”

For Fechner, being part of that bonding and helping the children is what it’s all about, especially at this time of year.

“The kids are together and doing things together. They all are coming out of the same social circumstances, and we get to help them. Christmas is about family and being together, and we can help with that.”


Click Here to Send a Letter to the Editor

Ozaukee Press

Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

125 E. Main St.
Port Washington, WI 53074
(262) 284-3494


User login