Camp Kesem: A place where magic happens for those that need it most

Sometimes the toughest role isn’t being the patient; it’s being the young child of the patient who has cancer.

With 1.7 million cancer cases every year in the U.S., there are more than 3 million kids affected by a parent’s cancer.  And because these kids are not the ones who are sick, going through treatment and struggling with the side effects of the meds, their needs can sometimes take a back seat and they wind up suffering quietly; sometimes leading to social and emotional problems.

Since 2000, Camp Kesem has given children affected by a parent’s cancer the opportunity to just be kids again and not be defined by their parent’s illness.  Camp Kesem provides kids, ages 6-16, with a safe, compassionate and cancer-aware weeklong, sleep-away camp program that allows them to have regular camp activities such as sports, arts and crafts, drama and, of course, color war.  In addition to traditional camp activities, kids participate in “Cabin Chats” with counselors and fellow campers sharing their experiences and personal journeys.  While not clinical therapy, often times just the extra attention and support from a compassionate peer group is just what these kids need most.

When Barb Simmonds was 3, she lost her mom to cancer. From that day forward, her family never talked about her mom. There were no pictures around, and the kids were never encouraged to discuss what had happened so Barb had very few memories of her mom.  Years later, Barb married and had three children. Then, tragedy struck again. Barb’s husband was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer and died two weeks later, on the first birthday of their youngest daughter, Rachel. Barb was determined to keep the memory of her children’s dad alive. She vowed to talk about him a lot, and to share pictures and stories, so that her kids would never forget. She also became involved with the LIVESTRONG Foundation, where she first heard about Camp Kesem.  Barb knew it would be the perfect place for Rachel, who was struggling with her father’s loss.

Rachel’s first response to hearing about Camp Kesem was: “I can’t wait to meet other kids like me!” “She had no qualms about going off on her own to camp, even as one of the youngest campers. And she came back much more confident, free-spirited, and able to talk more openly about losing her dad,” Barb says. “She loved the mayhem, the competitiveness, and the sheer fun of Color Wars Day.”

Barb wishes Camp Kesem had been around when she was a child.

Started by four Stanford University College students in 2000, Camp Kesem hosted 37 campers at its first one-week summer camp in 2001.  Word quickly spread and the Stanford leaders encouraged their friends at colleges across the country to replicate Camp Kesem in their communities.  This year, Camp Kesem will have 54 chapters around the U.S. Not only is Camp Kesem helping children affected by cancer, but they’re simultaneously developing and empowering a generation of student leaders by training college students to become camp counselors and make a meaningful difference in the lives of these children.

Kesem means “magic” in Hebrew and that’s exactly what this camp brings to families coping with cancer.  Amy and Mark were divorced and Amy was living in South Bend when Mark received his dual cancer diagnosis (two primary cancers, liver and pancreatic) in February 2010.  Though apart, they shared everything that was Ian, their sports-loving, four-wheeling, straight-A student son. When Mark died a year later, Ian’s questions were so hard for Amy to answer: “Why my dad?” “Why would God take a good dad?” “It’s not fair my dad is gone.” “I miss him so much.” “It hurts so bad.”

Amy heard about Camp Kesem through a friend. Ian needed magic, so Amy signed him up. In the car, on the way to Camp Kesem Notre Dame, Amy remembers the awkwardness of their silence. “Ian’s biggest fear was that he was going to cry,” Amy says. “When he told me that, of course, I started crying. ‘It’s OK if you cry … look, I’m crying already,'” she told him.  Amy explained that Camp Kesem was going to be a place that he could feel safe to cry and feel OK to laugh. She knew the camp was going to offer Ian a chance to just be Ian, a 10-year-old who lost his dad to cancer just four months before camp.

The respite was what exactly what Amy needed as well.

Just as Amy heard about the program from a friend, Camp Kesem relies on word of mouth from participants and supporters to spread the word about the experience that is fully funded for cancer-stricken families.  On Saturday, March 8, Camp Kesem will be hold its Family Night at the Museum fundraising gala at the Field Museum in Chicago from 6-9 p.m. For more information, please check its website. The gala is sold out this year, but start planning to attend next year.

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