Texas Parks & Wildlife Magazine   


 Earl Nottingham / TPWD


Couple builds special family relationships by visiting all Texas state parks.

Sharon Roberto was wrung out. She was on the road again, making the 400-mile round trip trying to keep two of her foster kids together. Things weren’t going as she’d hoped.

Suddenly her phone started pinging repeatedly, startling her. There had been several attempts to reach her while she was out of cell service. Panicked, she pulled over to the side of the road to find out what was wrong.

Another of her kids had fallen and hurt himself. Nothing serious, just everyday kid stuff.

Unnerved, Sharon snapped.

“You blew up my phone for that?”

After the frustration of courts and caseworkers and hours away from her family, Sharon felt she couldn’t deal with one more thing. She hung up.

And then felt as if her heart would break.

“I was so upset with myself because he’s just a kid,” Sharon recalls. “He got hurt. He wanted his mom. There was just no reason for me to be upset about that. I should be happy that he wants me.”

Troubled, Sharon prayed for an answer. And got one.

“We are going camping this weekend,” she announced to the family when she got home. “We’re just going to do it. It’s going to happen.”

 Courtesy Roberto Family

 Courtesy Roberto Family

A couple of years earlier, camping would have been an unusual suggestion for Sharon and her husband, Peter, who weren’t exactly outdoorsy. Mention nature to them and they’d most likely tell you about their allergies. Taking their large family to sleep outside was not something they’d even considered.

Sharon and Peter have eight kids, a mix of biological, adopted and foster children. The number varies at times, due to fostering. They live in a modest house in Wichita Falls, where Peter is a second-grade teacher and Sharon home-schools some of their children.

Peter knows about the foster care system all too well. He was in foster care in England as a child.

“I didn’t want kids to have to go through what I went through in foster care,” he says. “I was always just another kid, not part of the family. When I was adopted, I was already angry and bitter with my whole life situation. It took a long, long time for me to overcome that.”

Sharon and Peter and the kids had some problems of their own to overcome. The fight to keep a pair of siblings together — ultimately unsuccessful — had taken a toll on the family. Sharon and Peter were stretched thin, too thin.

The kids were spending a lot of time with babysitters.

“The kids weren’t around each other as much, so they stopped hanging out together,” Sharon says. “We were fighting a lot. Little things became magnified, like big blow-ups at bedtime. At that point we were wondering, ‘What can we do to bring our family back together?’”

Sharon says she started thinking about their experience at a Texas Outdoor Family workshop, TPWD’s learn-to-camp weekend where park rangers show newbies how to set up a tent, cook over a fire and have fun outside.

“They taught us what kind of gear you might need, things we had no idea about,” Sharon says. “We did a workshop about the sounds you hear in nature. The kids ate that up.”

 Courtesy Roberto Family

 Courtesy Roberto Family

Ranger Cassie Cox was one of the workshop leaders that weekend.

“The Roberto family was super-excited about kayaking despite the fact we had to walk a bit to the water and get muddy,” Cox says. “The feeling of powering your own boat and covering distance with kids in tow is an incredible experience. I saw their joy and determination as they paddled around the lake.”

As happens with most camping adventures, the workshop at Lake Arrowhead State Park (just outside town) didn’t go off without a hitch. Peter’s sleep apnea device wasn’t working, so he couldn’t sleep. At midnight, the Robertos packed up and went home.

But they came back the next morning, and were rewarded for their perseverance.

“By the end of the weekend, we were all laughing together,” Sharon says with a smile. “We felt like family again.”

Sharon wanted the family to recapture that feeling, to relax together away from screens and routines. Maybe the family just needed to work together to accomplish something, she thought.

Armed with the skills they’d learned at the workshop, the Roberto family headed out for a trip and had such a good time, they got hooked. Soon, the Robertos were camping every weekend.

As the family began to thrive, Peter and their eldest daughter began to anticipate upcoming milestones to celebrate: Peter was completing his teaching degree, and their daughter was graduating from high school.

Inspired by their love of camping, Sharon proposed a huge challenge to celebrate their family’s successes, an objective they wouldn’t have considered a short time earlier.

“Let’s hit all the state parks in Texas before you guys graduate.” And so it began.

The first obstacle: Could they afford it? The Texas State Parks Pass helped with that, providing free park entry and discounts on camping.

Of course, there were the logistics of traveling with a growing family, no small hurdle.

“I’m a huge planner,” says Sharon, so she was undaunted. After all, she’s the kind of mom who hangs a monthlong family meal plan on the refrigerator.

Visiting more than 90 state parks in one year? Bring it on!

All  Courtesy Roberto Family

Sharon set some ground rules, beginning with her new mantra: Put away the phones.

“We’re going to be present with each other,” she told them firmly. “Period.”

Second rule: Everybody helps out. Some kids enjoyed working on planning, others wanted to help set up the campsite. Even the little ones had a job, sometimes just to play quietly when the big ones were busy.

The third rule might seem puzzling at first: No surprises.

“A lot of foster kids have never had any kind of control over what’s happening in their lives,” Sharon tells us. “We fostered a sibling group at one point, and every time we would get ready to leave the house, they would assume they were moving away again, because they had been moved so many times. That’s why we’re very careful about trying to incorporate the kids into the planning.”

Of course, even with the best of plans, you can’t control everything.

“We don’t say we’re going on a camping trip,” Sharon says. “We say we’re going on an adventure. Things are going to turn and change. It’s sometimes hard in the moment, but later on, we’ll laugh about it.”

All that camping helped the family reconnect with each other.

“You sit around a campfire and tell jokes and play games,” Sharon says. “You’re not on electronics and you’re not in different rooms. You have to be together and really spend the time with one another.”

Camping didn’t just help the Roberto family, Sharon tells us. It saved them.

“I can tell you that after we go camping, the kids will talk about it for weeks,” she says. “They’ll remember funny moments. They’re just laughing and happy together again. It made a big difference with how everybody was getting along.”

The family didn’t reach their goal of visiting all the parks that year. But just like that first camping workshop, they didn’t give up. Their quest became a shared family project. Soon the kids were telling friends, park rangers — basically anyone they came across — about how many parks they had left to complete the list.

The Robertos documented their journey with a family picture in front of every state park sign.

 Earl Nottingham / TPWD

The Roberto family, with a combination of biological, adopted and foster kids, found ways to connect and have fun during their mission to visit all Texas state parks.

“One of our children recently came to live with us, and she had seen all our pictures,” Sharon says. “The very first time she went camping with us, we drove up to the park sign and said, ‘Get out of the car, time to take a picture.’ And she was like, ‘I get to take a picture with you guys? Oh my gosh!’”

Later, another boy came to them with special medical needs.

“He has disabilities, but he shouldn’t have to miss out on stuff because of that,” Peter says. He and Sharon developed a system for transporting and sterilizing the boy’s medical gear so he could go camping with the family.

Now that little boy has taken a shine to fishing, one of Peter’s favorite activities.

“He can get comfortable and not have to walk a long distance, which can be hard for him,” Sharon notes. “I think he especially likes the fact that he now has a dad who will go fishing with him.”

Two years and several kids later, the Robertos finally reached their goal of visiting every Texas state park.

“I just cannot even imagine how our lives would be today if we hadn't taken that leap and started camping,” Sharon says.

Something else happened while the Robertos pursued their amazing quest: They realized that adventures are everywhere. Sharon and Peter started buying playground equipment so the kids could spend more time outside. They began walking around their neighborhood.

“Every single night when we go outside, we look at the moon, look at the stars,” Sharon says. “Even just the simple task of taking the trash to the dumpster, we kind of turn that into our own little adventure.”

Sharon hopes their experience will inspire other families to try camping.

“I hope others see that if a family with eight kids, special medical needs and only a single income can do it, they can do it, too,” she says.

Not every camping trip is perfect, but there’s a lesson in each one, even the catastrophes.

“If you’ve had a bad experience in the past, don’t let that ruin it,” Peter says, and he’s not just talking about camping. “One bad experience does not define anything in life.”

Whitney Bishop is the social media coordinator for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

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