The Aggie: Camp Kesem comforts children of cancer patients

At UC Davis, a group of dedicated students are using their time to not only raise money for all-expenses-paid children-care camps, but also provide emotional support to the children who need it.

Story originally posted on March 12, 2013 on the California Aggie

By Alice Lee

At UC Davis,  a group of dedicated students are using their time to not only raise money for all-expenses-paid children-care camps, but also provide emotional support to the children who need it.

Camp Kesem is a summer camp sponsored by Camp Kesem National for children with a parent who has or has had cancer. The free overnight camp is planned for children between ages 6 to 16 to enjoy a fun-filled week of enjoying life and just being kids. The camp is open to all children regardless of race, religion, national origin or financial status.

Fifty college students spend the entire year before summer raising $60,000 to send at least 90 well-deserving children to camp for free. They continue to help those children by working as camp counselors throughout the week at camp.

“Everything we do at Camp Kesem focuses on our goal of giving campers the most fun week possible, while providing the extra support and attention they need,” said counselor Ashley Wolf, a second-year biochemistry major.

Camp counselors are put into four groups: arts and crafts, drama and music, sports and nature, or adventure. Throughout the year, they join together to plan benefit concerts, a 5K race called the Caterpillar Run, formals, bake sales, a camp reunion with the kids, Relay for Life and Make the Magic, a live silent auction.

Executive members on Camp Kesem’s board plan and facilitate fundraisers, sometimes working with different clubs and organizations on campus throughout the year. They also plan and schedule camp activities, recruit counselors and campers, and plan reunions.

“There are way too many memories to narrow it down to just one. I do have one favorite activity, however. It is probably the funniest scene anyone could ever stumble upon. We call it [the] Messy Olympics, where there are a bunch of games and activities where everyone ends up getting covered in some of the grossest things — like spaghetti, mustard, chocolate sauce and whipped cream. By the end of the activity it is just a mob of kids and college students trying to hit each other with flying ketchup,” said co-chair Lauren Mackrell, a fourth-year community and regional development major.

An important activity during camp is the Empowerment Ceremony where everyone from camp comes together and shares their stories of why they are part of Camp Kesem. This night is often extremely emotional and kids of all ages lean on one another and look to each other for strength and comfort.

“Camp Kesem has been the defining experience of my time at UC Davis. It is through this organization I have met some of the greatest people and my best friends. It has also provided me with skills of leadership, honesty, hard work, organization, really more skills than I can even begin to describe, not to mention a family away from home,” Mackrell said.

The counselors do all that they can to hold fundraisers to raise money for these kids so that the kids can come to camp just to be kids and meet others who know what they are going through and share similar fears, according to Mackrell.

“ We have this camp so that the kids do not have to think about if their dad is going to have the energy to take them to the park or if they are going to have to make sure their younger sibling gets their homework done so that their mom can rest,” Mackrell said.

One of the biggest fundraisers coming up is called Make the Magic, a live silent auction that is projected to raise enough money to send 25 kids to camp. Ticket prices include a full-course meal, entertainment and notable speakers. Those who attend can learn more about the current mission and goals of the Camp Kesem Davis chapter as well as help send campers to camp for free.

“My sister went to a silent auction and she was won over by how caring and sweet the counselors were. By the end of the night, she donated a lot of money and gave me enough information that I tried to get involved as well,” said Mona Nguyen, a first-year psychology major.

In 2000, the first Camp Kesem project was founded at Stanford University. It was a project of Hillel at Stanford, a nonprofit organization serving Jewish students, and it was developed by a group of student leaders who sought to create a magical summer camp experience for children in need.

After assessing the needs of the community, the students found that children who have or had a parent with cancer could benefit the most from a summer camp experience with peers who faced similar challenges.

Camp Kesem at UC Davis was founded in 2005, and so far they have held seven camps.

“People should apply [to be a counselor] because when a parent is diagnosed with cancer, the whole family is affected. For children, the carefree joys and adventure of childhood are replaced with new responsibilities, anger, guilt and the fear of losing or loss of a parent,” Wolf said. “There are few services available to these children, and I am excited to have the opportunity to help make this summer’s session of Camp Kesem Davis a magical one for this often overlooked population.”

Applications are available during both Fall and Winter Quarters for those interested in becoming a camp counselor. Meetings are held throughout the year in Wellman 7 at 8 p.m. on Sunday nights.

“Even though I haven’t had a chance to be a counselor, I try to help out as much as I can by going to their fundraisers and small events that they have,” Nguyen said. “I sometimes go visit their table at the Quad and learn about the children who suffer such hardships simply by having a parent with cancer. Camp Kesem is an awesome experience that does incredible things for well-deserving kids.”