A camp for the courageous

This month, kids from all over the region will make art projects, conquer a ropes course, sing camp songs and bunk up in cabins with new friends. By sheer appearance, this is just a normal camp experience for Chicago kids. But these kids are taking a much-needed vacation: They’re at Camp Kesem, where every camper has a parent who is suffering from, has died of or is in remission from cancer.

This June marks the third year of Northwestern University’s Camp Kesem. The camp is a haven for about 60 children ages 6-13 and it is completely free. Perhaps what makes it stand out even more among the many camps offered this summer in the Chicagoland area is the discussion and sensitivity towards cancer. Every night before bed, counselors engage the campers in"Cabin Chats,” where campers can discuss how cancer has affected their lives in an open, supportive environment.

“We don’t force Cabin Chats on anyone,” says Mike Sidorov, 22, co-director of the camp."Yet toward the end of the week, the kids open up more, especially the older ones. They end up with a great support network that they can keep in contact with.”

This will be the third summer at Camp Kesem for Bette Sturm’s 11-year-old daughter, and Sturm loves that her daughter can meet other kids dealing with the same issue.

“She can’t just go over to a friend’s house and sit there talking about her mom,” says Sturm of Island Lake."It’s hard for a child to verbalize their frustration about cancer to friends who aren’t affected by that.” Thanks to Camp Kesem, Sturm’s daughter has new friends and a new outlet to vent her feelings.

Camp Kesem is run by major universities in every corner of the country. From one camp at Stanford in 2000, Camp Kesem now has 16 camps nationwide, with five more slated for summer 2008 openings. Northwestern’s camp is held in Ingleside at Camp Henry Horner and will be held this year June 10-15, a time when both campers and counselors from Northwestern are just getting out of school and ready to jump into the fun of summer camp.

The counselors, all volunteers, train for one to two hours per month and have meetings to learn to deal with common issues such as homesickness and bullying, as well as the sensitivity needed with these special children.

“Northwestern students are on the quarter system and usually overcommitted. The fact that they can devote so much time to Kesem amidst their rushed schoolwork and other commitments is a testament to their devotion to the camp,” says Sidorov, who has been working with Camp Kesem since 2003.

In case of an emergency, Camp Kesem also employs a camp director, nurse and therapist.

All this fun and community spirit doesn’t come cheap. Sidorov estimates it can cost up to $250 to feed, house and provide programming to each camper. Baxter Healthcare is a major sponsor, but some money does come in from families in the area and around the country. Many families whose children have attended camp choose to donate once they see the positive ways their kids have been affected.

“Parents notice an increase in their kids’ self-esteem and confidence,” Sidorov says."For many, this is their first experience away from home.”

Although both mother and daughter were a bit nervous about the five nights away from home, Sturm says,"The minute I walked into her cabin to pick her up at the end of the week, she gleefully asked‘Mom, can I come next year?’"

Since the camp is free, monetary donations are appreciated. You can also donate items for the week at camp. Camp Kesem needs everything from batteries to fitted sheets to Bacitracin ointment. To learn more about donating and to see a full list of needed items, visit www.groups.northwestern.edu/campkesem.

Cancer doesn’t just attack the victim. The whole family suffers, especially children. Camp Kesem is a place where they can spend a week having fun, a place where cancer can be talked about freely and where children can make friends who are dealing with the same traumatic experience. It’s not therapy and it’s not a support group. Camp Kesem is just a place for sports, arts and crafts, friends and being a kid.

Allison Markowitz is a junior at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and is a Chicago Parent intern.

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