Last August our son Peter attended camp for the very first time. He experienced many of the time honored rituals of a traditional summer camp: swimming, canoeing, backpacking, songs and stories around the campfire, and (for a more modern twist) a ropes course. The campers ranged in age from 6 to 16, but they all had something in common; a parent who’d been diagnosed with cancer.
The idea for Camp Kesem was developed in 2000 by four students from Stanford University who wanted to do something positive for children with cancer. They soon realized that although there were several organizations that addressed the needs of children fighting the disease themselves, an important group of children had been overlooked; those whose lives had been impacted by a parent’s diagnosis of cancer. And so Camp Kesem (Kesem means magic in Hebrew) was created, and two missions were defined:
“To provide children whose parent has or had cancer with a free summer camp experience that gives them a chance to be kids.”
“To allow college students to channel their passion for making a difference while developing critical leadership skills for long-term social impact.”
Word of the well received first camp in 2001 spread quickly, demand among campers grew, and students at other universities became interested in starting their own chapters. In 2011, Camp Kesem was nominated and chosen as a recipient of LIVESTRONG’s Community Impact Project. The monies from this award provided support for additional staffing and seed money for 12 new campuses. In 2012, 14 new campus chapters have been added for a total of 37 camps in 22 states. For a complete list of regional Camp Kesems as well as information regarding applications, click here.
Peter was seven when I was diagnosed with lung cancer, and fourteen when he attended MIT Camp Kesem last summer. While at camp Peter received, for the first time, validation from his peers that when a parent has cancer, your own life is turned upside down as well. I asked Peter to put into his own words the Camp Kesem experience:
“Part of what makes Camp Kesem so amazing is how relaxed the atmosphere stays. We all know why we are here, and the unspoken sadness that is always there lingers, but we don’t have to talk about it. We can, but we do not have to. It is kinda just beneath the surface. Now, that sounds pretty grim, but we are so distracted and having so much fun, that all that is left is the knowledge that we all share this same little thought. Even if we aren’t necessarily talking about it, we all can and do. This means that the feeling of togetherness is magnified, until it seems like we have everything in common. We are all together, and we are all okay.”
The reach of Camp Kesem is limited only by funding. Most campers return the next summer, and the college age counselors work hard to establish and maintain relationships with individual campers that are not limited to the week of camp. I couldn’t be more impressed by this organization and have joined the National Parent Committee. Our goal is to spread the word and help make this opportunity available to even more children. So that they, like Peter, can know the solidarity that comes with sharing a common hurt:
“We are all together, and we are all okay.”