Summer has come to a close with a now cherished ritual: Camp Kesem, MIT. On Sunday, August 19th, we dropped Peter off at Merrowvista in the Ossipee mountains for a week of hiking, swimming, games and cabin chats. His fellow campers (almost a hundred strong) ranged in age from six to eighteen.
At first glance, this is a summer camp like any other. Look more closely, and you will see that Camp Kesem is truly special. Each of the children in attendance has one thing in common: a parent diagnosed with cancer. Some have lost a mother or father, others are afraid they soon will.
Camp Kesem is first and foremost a respite from worry, a week devoted to good clean fun. But it is also a safe place to pull out the emotional stops, and time is set aside to share individual journeys. In essence, it is a giant support group and extended family rolled into one. There is a consistency to Camp Kesem, as most campers return and the majority of the counselors do as well. Camp Kesem is a national non-profit organization, but regional camps are sponsored by student groups from local universities. The counselors at Camp Kesem MIT are either enrolled at or alumni of Massachusetts Institute of Technology. They are volunteers, and not just for one week in August: Camp Kesem is a yearlong commitment. In between actual sessions, time is devoted to planning, raising awareness, hosting reunions and aggressive fund raising: Camp Kesem is free for every child.
Both mentor and friend, counselors develop tight relationships with their charges. Many of these young men and women have also been touched by cancer, and in sharing their experiences, make it easier for campers to do the same: sometimes for the first time ever.
Friday, August 24th was the final day of camp, and we waited at MIT for the buses from Merrowvista to arrive. Peter was one of the first to file in, and he greeted us only briefly. It seemed he was not quite ready to leave the bubble of Camp Kesem, and we kept our distance as he joined the circle of campers and counselors for one last round of communal singing and dancing. After a time, the teen campers and their counselors broke away and formed a smaller circle, which slowly tightened into a knot; one big group hug.
Duff was one of the last names called for checkout, and I joined Pete on the steps as he said his goodbyes. His dad went to feed the parking meter as Peter and I collected his duffle and other items. The reserve he’d displayed earlier had fallen away; he was holding back tears. I asked if he was okay. Yes, but sad as well.
As we began to talk and I listened to his recounting of the week, I understood again what an important place Camp Kesem held in Peter’s heart. He’d just spent a week laughing, playing, listening, telling, crying, hugging. There had been moments of great sorrow, but each had been balanced by acceptance, compassion and even joy. He had become a valued member of a caring community, but for the most part, this community existed in a certain time and space. Although he had email addresses, he knew that it wasn’t going to be the same. Of course, there is next year to look forward to.
Thank you, Camp Kesem, for recognizing that the children of people with cancer need a special place of their own. A place to heal, to connect, to grow. A place to make enduring friendships and to gather strength. A place where they and their personal experiences are both recognized and valued, a place where the word survivor is all about them.