Campers and counselors at Korean Culture Camp in St. Paul, Minnesota, start the day by chanting “hello” in Korean. After a brief group session, campers are off to a day of activities from drumming and dance to Taekwondo to art.
While these activities are a staple of summer camps across the U.S., this one is different because the classes all relate to Korean culture. The camp is a weeklong immersion in all things Korean.
“The camp was started in 1977 by parents, mostly Caucasian parents, who had adopted children from Korea. And they wanted their children to feel good about their Korean Heritage and to experience Korean culture so they began a summer camp,” explains camp director Elain Ekstedt.
The international adoption of South Korean children began after the Korean War in the early 1950’s. Beginning in 1987, the South Korean government introduced a quota system aimed at slowing the adoptions.
This year, the camp has 235 children from pre-kindergarten to seventh grade - and 250 volunteers.
“Most of the volunteers are the parents of the campers. It's become a whole family experience. Those campers grow up, after they're no longer campers then they become teen helpers. We have a hundred teen helpers in our camp this year. Then after the teen helpers, they can become young adult volunteers. And we actually have people who come back to our camp every year,” Ekstedt said.
Parker Yellick is a teen helper.
“I was adopted when I was eight months old. I was self-conscious about like being a Korean adoptee but when I came here I got to hear and see a bunch of other people who have the same story as I do," Yellick said. "And it was really cool because it then helped me accept who I am, and it made me proud to be of Korean heritage.”
Yellick has volunteered at the camp for four years. “I've kept volunteering because I wanted to help other kids who may have been like me. It is also very fun.”
College student and adult volunteer Kevin Cunningham has been to camp for 22 years. “Korean Culture Camp, when I was a kid, was my favorite week of the year and I would say still is as an adult because now I get to come back and see all the kids doing what I did, going to the class and learning about language, history, and doing Taekwondo together,” Cunningham said. “You don't usually get to be around so many Korean kids.” Cunningham added that many of the campers he has met have become close and enduring friends.
Camp Director Ekstedt adopted a daughter from Korea and says a large number of Korean adoptees led to high enrollment - as many as 700 - in the 90's. Now there are fewer adoptees so camp enrollment is 250 to 300 every summer.
But former campers now bring their own children. Other campers come from the Korean community. This new group has prompted changes.
“Our self-esteem classes have changed,” Ekstedt says. “It is not so much about adoption anymore. It's about feeling good about being Korean, having a Korean heritage."
“I love to see those kids who are very excited about what they are doing here, what they are learning,” said education director Hongjoo Lee. “That's why I've been here for 14 years, that makes me really happy.”