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Growing up with Kamp Kimchee

One of the best decisions I’ve made in my adult life was going back to camp. A piece of me was missing that I hadn’t realized until I had it back again.

The Kamp Kimchee mentors of 2022 pose for a photo on the first day of camp.
The Kamp Kimchee mentors of 2022 pose for a photo on the first day of camp, Monday, July 11, 2022.
Contributed / Clark Monson
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My whole life, I’ve felt like all eyes were on me simply because I didn’t look like most of the other kids — except for when I attended Kamp Kimchee.

Kamp Kimchee will forever hold a special place in my heart, even though I stopped attending after middle school. It made me feel normal to attend a camp filled with other kids who looked like me and were potentially experiencing the same hardships and emotions as me.

Hardships might sound like a stretch for a little kid, but growing up as a Korean adoptee in rural Minnesota was not the easiest. I was made aware that I was different at a very early age.

While other students made pamphlets about the day their mothers gave birth to them and how overjoyed their parents were, I sat at my desk writing an alternative assignment and wondered why I wasn’t assigned something everyone could do.

That would all change for one week in July, though.

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Sara Guymon.jpg
Dispatch staff writer Sara Guymon.
Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

Kamp Kimchee is a weeklong summer camp for Korean adoptees and their families to come and explore their culture while embracing who they are as a Korean-American. It was in Baxter when I was a child, but moved up to Crosslake a couple years ago. The campers have culture, dance, art, taekwondo, and self-esteem classes every day. Plus, when you are in middle and high school, you get to do off-site activities like pickleball and kayaking.

The camp has really expanded from where it was when I was a camper. Former campers now bring their children who are mostly mixed races and we continue to grow with the new and returning campers.

I began going to camp when I was in kindergarten and stopped going after eighth grade. I experienced a mostly positive experience at camp throughout my years there, but ultimately decided it wasn’t a place I felt I belonged anymore after middle school.

I experienced a lot of mixed emotions with my own adoption story at the time and I wasn’t fitting in well with other campers. I went through a period of feeling excluded and that dissuaded me from returning during high school. Kamp Kimchee was the one place where I didn’t feel excluded before — but that changed very quickly.

Instead of pursuing my Korean identity, I continued my tennis career in the summers. I devoted my time to playing in the mornings and used sports as an excuse to not go back.

Despite leaving after middle school, I decided to go back after my first year of college to mentor the younger generation. I traveled twice to South Korea since my last experience at camp and really began to embrace my Korean identity.

Plus, my birth mother rejected me during my absence from camp and I knew how devastating adoption could be on young children. I wanted to be there for the kids who decided to open their files or pursue contact with their biological parents and whatever outcome they received.

One of the best decisions I’ve made in my adult life was going back to camp. A piece of me was missing that I hadn’t realized until I had it back again.

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Returning as a mentor, the first year I was placed with the kindergarten and pre-K kids. At first, I was very disappointed because my experience of adoption wasn’t going to be useful, but now I am very grateful I was paired with that age range.

That was in 2019, and I stuck with the same grades until this year. This year, I mentored 16 kids in the third and fourth grade level with the experience to meet so many new campers. It was also the first year without two of my original campers who I mentored every year, but they are now in the second grade.

These children mean so much to me at this point. I’ve watched them grow up and develop their own personalities. Plus, they are at the age that they remember me. They look forward to seeing me as much as I look forward to seeing them.

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This was our second year at the Crosslake Community School, but it was the first year I’ve mentored when the staff and mentors stayed in a different hotel than the children. In past years, we stayed with the families so the kids could see us and hang out with us after camp ended about 3 p.m. However, there were a large number of new families joining us this year and it made sense to put us down the road.

In addition to the new hotel, I also had a new experience. I participated in my first mentor panel. This is a parent program during which the mentors talk about their experiences and how parents can potentially support their adopted or Asian children.

My biggest takeaway from partaking in this is there is no “one size fits all” to supporting a child, especially one dealing with racism and identity crisis. It’s also good to mention that each child’s experience is different and someone growing up in the Twin Cities will have a very different experience than I did growing up in New Ulm.

My favorite part about camp though has not changed in the past four years. I love the kids that attend. I make it my goal to give them a week where they don’t feel ashamed or scared to be who they are. This goes for the adopted campers, multiracial campers, and Caucasian campers. I want them all to have the same and exciting experience.

Two other mentors helped out with my class this year due to the large size. One of them was my childhood friend. She was from one of the three families from New Ulm who attended Kamp Kimchee when I was growing up and we were very close throughout childhood. She is the closest thing I have to a sister, so it’s always nice to get to spend time with her and catch up.

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I will say that I was exhausted this year. My class size was seven last year and to add so many kids was a bit draining. Still, we made the best of it and I would rather struggle with having too many kids than too little.

Throughout the week I really got to know my campers and their families. One of the things I love about this camp is even though we only see each other for one week each summer, we are bonded in a way that is stronger than most. For the children, it gives them companionship with someone who is like them and understands what growing up is like. For the families, it gives family members of different races a chance to understand and support the Korean member on a deeper level.

Kamp Kimchee was actually one of the reasons I applied for the job in Brainerd. I was semi-knowledgeable of the area and it made moving to a new area a little less intimidating. Without camp, I don’t know if I ever would have applied to work at the Dispatch.

Kamp Kimchee holds a special place in my heart and continues to be one of my favorite summer events. I am looking forward to watching my campers grow and develop into who they are and continue exploring my own Korean identity in the future.

SARA GUYMON, Brainerd Dispatch, staff writer, may be reached at 218-855-5851 or sara.guymon@brainerddispatch.com.

Related Topics: PEOPLECROSSLAKE
Opinion by Sara Guymon
Sara Guymon recently joined the Brainerd Dispatch as a staff writer.
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