Tag Archives: Camp Kesem

Giving Tuesday

S’alright. Shameless (make that proud) pitch for two of my favorite organizations on Giving Tuesday.

First, Camp Kesem. Honestly, I don’t know how my family would cope without Kesem in our lives. This free (yes!) camp for children impacted by a parent’s cancer diagnosis has played such a positive–make that transformative–role in our son Peter’s life.

Peter at Camp as well as a quote from him (Coati is his camp name).

Only seven years old when I was diagnosed with lung cancer, Peter’s childhood had a shadow over it. The summer he turned eleven, we were told I had three to five months left to live and both Peter and I began counseling. Obviously I didn’t die then, but we were all traumatized.

I had to talk Peter into camp and could only hope it would prove to be a positive experience. He came home from his first Camp Kesem MIT (college students from around the country both staff and support chapters) with the assertion that it had been the best week of his life.

Peter continued to be a camper right up until he aged out and now that he is a student at MIT, he is a counselor. His fellow campers and counselors are part of Peter’s extended family–a family that gets what it’s like to grow up with cancer in the house.

Last fall I had my own opportunity to attend ‘camp’ in Peru, as a fellow with A Fresh Chapter. Unlike Peter, I required no urging. However, my experience was every bit as transformative for me as Camp Kesem was for him.

Like Peter, I was surrounded by others who got my experience with no prior explanation required, as each of us had been diagnosed with cancer. For two weeks we worked in the morning as volunteers in the communities surrounding Lima. After lunch we’d sit in a semi circle of comfortable chairs in a large room that overlooked the ocean. Many magical conversations happened in that space and along the way we formed an unbreakable bond. My tribe is now part of my extended family–twenty three people that I love and respect to the moon and back.

So please, on Giving Tuesday, consider supporting one (or both) of these two life changing organizations.

Camp Kesem (Peter Duff’s fundraising page 😉 or A Fresh Chapter. And help spread the gift of healing.


Camp Kesem MIT 2012

Peter at pick-up: Camp Kesem MIT 2012

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.

Thoughts of summer: Camp Kesem

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.” 

The calm before the storm

It has just begun to rain here. Irene is moving up the coast, and we are anticipating strong winds and lots of moisture for a rather sustained period.

Yesterday we were in Boston, picking up Pete after camp. It couldn’t have been a more gorgeous day.

It wasn’t just the weather that was perfect:  greeting all the kids and counselors as they returned from their week at Camp Kesem was one of the best experiences ever. Pete straggled in with his pillow and a big grin. “It was amazing,” he said. “Just amazing”.

Campers ranged in age from six to eighteen and Pete’s group was teens fourteen and up. An almost equal number of counselors, all MIT students, accompanied the group as they swam, hiked, camped out, canoed, played games, and participated in a ropes course. In the evening they hung out together and talked. All of the campers had a parent fighting cancer and in some cases the parent had died; Peter said the conversations were at times incredibly sad but also very moving.

What I witnessed on the day of pick-up, was a staggering amount of joy, love, support and energy. Pete was emotional as he hugged his new friends, both campers and counselors, goodbye. I had so hoped this would be a wonderful experience, and in fact it exceeded all expectation.

Grabbing a snack afterward

And so, from the Duff family, a big, big shout out to Camp Kesem (click here for more information about camps in your area and/or to donate to this very worthy cause). As for all the counselors (who volunteer their time and fundraise as well); you are beyond amazing. From the bottom of our hearts, thank you.


Saturday was a day of extreme ups and downs. The bad/sad news about my friend Guillermo. A disturbing dream the night before; in which I had been attempting to climb to higher ground as a giant wave washed in, only to have it sweep me out to sea. I survived the tsunami, but as I back-stroked toward shore, what I feared to be sharks would bump against my legs and I wondered what it would feel like when they struck.

We were also scurrying to get out the door to Boston, where we would be attending an information session in regard to a camp Peter will be attending, and then dropping David off at Logan for a flight to England. We’ve yet to sort everything out from our move, and initially David couldn’t find his stash of business cards. As we got in the car, I asked him to check for his passport; he did, only to discover that it was an older document that had now expired.

Well, after momentary panic and a quick search of the house, the current passport was found tucked in another compartment in David’s briefcase.

Three deep breaths and an hour and a half later, we were at MIT; The Massachusetts Institute for Technology.

What a place. Sort of hallowed ground for those in love with sciences…Peter was indeed in heaven. I got a kick out of all of the bright young minds roving the halls; it made me feel smarter (kind of like osmosis) just being proximal to all that brilliance.

The reason for our visit was orientation for Camp Kesem, a wonderful opportunity for children who have a parent with cancer. Should you follow the link, you will see that it is geared for children ages 6-13. In reality, they accept teens up to age 18 and I’m not sure why that is misstated on their website; upon initially checking them out (after being alerted to their existence by my friend Diane), I assumed Pete would not be eligible, as he is 14. Further investigation at a later date corrected my assumption, but our application was turned in just before closing and Pete was wait-listed. Happily, two weeks ago we found out a spot had opened for him.

The counselors are all MIT students who donate their time to this cause, and their enthusiasm was contagious. It was all I could do to not start weeping; it is such a glorious concept (there is no charge, therefore making it available to families regardless of income) and addresses the unmet needs of a group that is so often disregarded:  our children.

At the end of August, Peter will have a chance to interact with other young people dealing with a parent’s illness in an unstructured environment where the emphasis is on fun; a much needed respite from cancer.

Afterward we took a short walk along Massachusetts Avenue, before deciding on a cafe called Flour for dinner. It was sooo good, and a lovely way to top off a day that had begun so painfully.