Camp Kesem is not a typical summer camp. It is a nonprofit camp for children whose parents have or had cancer. College students run Camp Kesem’s 35 chapters across the country, including one here at Emory.
For one week during the summer, children as young as six and as old as 16 are sent away from hospitals, bedsides and grieving families to attend Emory’s camp in Warm Springs, GA. The camp is named for a Hebrew word meaning magic,
The Emory chapter, which has 35 members on four planning committees, has expanded since its first year on campus in 2007, College junior and co-chair of Emory’s Camp Kesem chapter Camille Nelson said.
Throughout the years, leaders have learned to delegate more responsibilities to student volunteers, making the organization more engaging and attractive to those who want to build leadership skills. An increased interest in becoming a Camp Kesem volunteer allowed them to set their goal for this year at enrolling 50 campers, compared to the 33 they had this past summer, Nelson said.
“People like kids, and we know that cancer is a huge issue,” Nelson said. “But I like that we can help in a different way, instead of doing research. We are actually dealing with the families and kids, seeing how what we do helps them directly.”
The chapter is also trying to create an advisory board, a group of alumni, parents and local professionals who will guide assist the students with tasks such as fundraising. Fundraising is an essential aspect of making Camp Kesem possible because it allows families already struggling with medical costs to benefit by sending their children to camp at no cost, College sophomore and Co-chair Elizabeth Carson said.
Parents new to the camp often feel hesitant about sending their children away, Carson said, adding that the shared experience between each camper is intimate.
“They want to know what other campers are going through,” Carson said. “Whether they’ve had a loss or if their parents are in remission. It gets personal.”
Carson attended the first funeral of her life this year, along with Nelson, when the father of their youngest camper passed away.
“Resilient doesn’t even begin to describe her,” Carson said of the young girl. “Brave doesn’t do her justice.”
Carson and Nelson said they were shocked by the outpouring of support the children gave the young camper.
“It’s amazing to see these little kids responding even better than some adults do,” Nelson said. “It makes me admire these kids.”
The family’s request for the Camp Kesem counselors’ attendance at the funeral is a testament to the close relationships that Camp Kesem fosters, Carson explained, because it shows how these relationships extend beyond the week at camp.
Coordinators on the Camper Care committee send out birthday cards and holiday cards, and keep in touch with families and campers throughout the year.
Though fundraising helps cover the cost of meals and lodging, it also helps with the more engaging activities.
Nelson, whose nickname at camp is “Reese’s,” helped plan several of the games campers played last summer. One game included “Minute to Win It,” in which campers tried to hold one end of a Popsicle stick in their mouth and balance five dice on the other end for one minute. Other activities include swimming, arts and crafts, archery and some good-humored pranks.
“It was one of the best experiences of my life, connecting with the kids and counselors,” College senior Rosy Gomez, who has volunteered with Camp Kesem for three years now, said. “We all became a big family. We were there, and we all knew why we were there, but we still had so much fun.”
Although Camp Kesem is not meant to be therapeutic, national guidelines require that every chapter has an on-site psychologist at the camp to advise the counselors on how to create an emotionally supportive environment.
Time is set aside at one point in the week during which campers are encouraged to share what the camp has meant to them.
The time to share their experiences allowed the campers to open up and talk about their families, according to Carson and Nelson.
One of the most memorable moments for both Carson and Nelson was when a 13-year-old girl told them that camp was the one week out of the entire year that she was able to just be a kid.
Carson said it’s difficult for her to imagine life after college because it means leaving Camp Kesem.
But her time at camp has inspired Carson to continue working with children.
Now, she said she is considering working as a pediatrician or a child-life specialist to help children with chronic illnesses and their families cope.
“People forget how much can be learned from kids,” Carson said. “Learning not to take little things for granted. Or taking family for granted.”
Camp Kesem will also hosting a flag football event on Nov. 5.
— Contact Danielle Douez.