The girls, both adopted from Guatemala as infants, were among the 517 campers — and several hundred parent-volunteers — who came together last week for La Semana, a culture camp for children adopted from Latin American countries.

The camp, now in its 33rd year, was started by a group of moms who wanted to instill in their children a sense of pride and an understanding of their heritage. This year, campers came from 22 states and Canada. Many come back year after year to spend time at a place where everybody looks like them.

“There’s truly a sense of community,” said Brandy Koster of Eagan, chairwoman of the camp this year. Her three children, two of whom were adopted from Colombia, come every year.

“My daughter put it best just about a week ago,” Koster said. “She said, ‘I want to go see my second family.’”

“I remember my son Mateo [now 14 years old], at the end of the first day saying ‘That was fun, can we go again next year?’ I told him, ‘We can go again tomorrow!’ After a couple of years he was like ‘I wish camp was two weeks long.’ ”

The camp, sponsored by the nonprofit Parents of Latin American Children, runs Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Parents pay a sliding fee, from $60 to $250 for the week, depending on how many hours they can volunteer to be teachers, classroom facilitators or organizers.

Each year, camp begins with a flag ceremony. Flags representing the campers’ countries of origin — Colombia, Guatemala, Ecuador, Paraguay, Brazil and more — are carried one by one through the crowd of children wearing purple, yellow, orange, blue, teal, or red T-shirts that designate their grade level. Parts of each country’s national anthem are played as the flags are placed on a small stage.

The week culminates with a fiesta at Lakeville South High School attended by 1,500 people. The younger children perform traditional dance in costumes. The older children perform a modern dance to Latin music.

In between, campers rotate through classes in Latin American arts and crafts, dance, simple Spanish lessons and “life” classes, which focus on age-appropriate adoption issues. There’s playground equipment, soccer and basketballs and jump ropes for playtime. Campers bring their lunch or buy it there.

Featured nation

Each year, a specific country is highlighted; this year it was Honduras. Campers learn about the country, try food from there and raise money for a children’s charity in that country. Kid-friendly, authentic food like empanadas, arroz y frijols (rice and beans), pozole and quesadillas are sold at lunch.

Last year, Paraguay was in the spotlight. That’s where Tadeo Nelson, 24, was born. He grew up in Roseville and attended La Semana until he was about 10 years old and other family commitments got in the way. He returned three years ago as an alum, and this year helped out in a seventh-grade classroom.

Campers in kindergarten through seventh-grade spend the day in classrooms and on the grounds of All Saints Church in Lakeville.

Middle-schoolers, called amigos (friends), are bused to the Boy Scouts’ Base Camp at Fort Snelling, where they take classes, work on team-building exercises and participate in a quinceañaro, a traditional ceremony in many parts of Latin America that celebrates a 15th birthday and marks the transition from childhood to young adulthood.

Teenagers and young adults, called ayudantes (helpers), help out in each classroom, hear speakers and learn a modern dance that they perform at the fiesta.

Amigos and ayudantes

Maddy Green, 19, of St. Cloud, who was adopted from Brazil and graduated from Groves Academy in St. Louis Park last year, was an ayudante at camp this year.

“We basically just watch over the kids,” she said. “I’m in charge of a fourth-grade class. I looked up to the ayudantes when I was younger.”

When Green was an amigo, she listened to an ayudante talk about visiting their birthparents. Green and her family spent two weeks in Brazil earlier this summer, where she was able to meet her birth mother, two biological siblings and other relatives.

“It was bittersweet,” she said. “I was happy to see them but [it was] also hard because they weren’t living in the greatest conditions.”

Alex Klaus, 18, of Woodbury, who was adopted from Bogota, Colombia, when he was 4 months old, has been coming to La Semana since he was a first-grader.

“It’s a place that if you’re open to meeting new people, then it’s right for you,” he said. “It’s how you go about stuff. I would definitely recommend it as someplace adopted kids can find common ground.”

The ayudantes are the “rock stars” of the camp; the younger campers look up to them, but they can also be the hardest to wrangle, as Lisa Smith of Chattanooga, Tenn., knows all too well.

She is the senior teen coordinator for the camp.

“Everybody matures at a different pace and everybody’s at a different place,” she said diplomatically on Day 1. “My goal is to make my job manageable. When I’ve got teens wandering all over the place, my job isn’t manageable.”

‘A cool mom?’

“Can I go to the bathroom?” one after another asked.

“Yes, Emma.” “Yes, Carlos.” “Yes, Alex,” Smith told them throughout the morning.

Smith’s two children, adopted from Guatemala, have been coming to La Semana since 2004. Her oldest, Jocelyn, 19, is now a classroom facilitator. Her youngest, Rosa, 17, is an ayudante.

“I mortify her, what can I say?” Smith said. I’m not a cool mom. My job is to be a parent, not a friend, and my job here is to be senior teen coordinator and not a friend.”

The Smith family learned about La Semana from a children’s book written by a La Semana dad. The first year, her daughters were in fourth- and second-grade.

“After the first day, we get in the car and Jocelyn said, ‘Everybody’s just like me!’ and I thought, ‘That’s exactly why we’re here.’ Then the second day, we get in the car and Rosa says, ‘You know, Mommy, all the kids in my class are my color and all the moms and dads are your color.’

“I said ‘That’s why we’re here.’ ”