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Tuesday, October 26, 2021

Children affected by cancer find common ground at camp

This week, organizers for Camp Kesem, a week-long summer camp for kids whose lives have been affected by cancer, will be holding info sessions to recruit student volunteers to help plan, fundraise and work as counselors.

UC Davis is just one of 38 schools across the nation that holds a camp for kids who have or have had a parent diagnosed with cancer. The camp, which runs for six days and five nights and hosts up to 80 kids, offers a chance for kids to enjoy a fun-filled week of activities they may have missed out on due to their parent’s illness.

The camp, held at Camp Jones Gulch in Santa Cruz, is free to campers and funded by donations. It provides a safe space for each camper to forge much-needed support systems.

“‘Kesem’ means ‘magic’ in Hebrew,” said Kristin Horn, senior psychology major and the organization’s co-chair. “It’s kind of corny, but it’s really a perfect way to describe what happens. Campers start at age six and can continue coming to camp until they are 16, and there’s the counselors who are college students. It’s amazing to see people of such a wide age range learn from each other and grow with each other.”

Since the percentage of kids who have dealt with cancer at a young age is small, many feel alienated in school and in social environments. Arriving at camp is comfortable for each camper because they know that everyone is there for the same reason, Horn said.

“I’ve had campers come up to me and say that it was nice showing up in a place where the ice was already broken,” Horn said. “They don’t have to have that initial conversation where they have to tell people, when they first meet them, what their situation is.”

Kesem counselors work hard to give the kids an outlet so they can let loose and have the best time possible, providing activities such as ziplining, rock climbing, and arts and crafts. After each fun-packed day, the counselors facilitate ‘cabin talks’ in the evenings, which provide the therapeutic aspect of the camp.

“The cabin chats are a chance for them to open up and share their personal experiences,” said Andrew Taverrite, senior communication and political science double major. “It’s a chance for them to relate to one another and know that they’re not the only one out there.”

The nightly cabin chats can be challenging, as they remind each participant why they are there, but the Kesem counselors said that the process is definitely a rewarding one.

“You can tell when some of the kids are having a harder time than others — they’ll act out because of their situation,” said Vincent Shea, sophomore biology major. “They are dealing with social problems outside of school because they feel uncomfortable. It’s amazing what happens when they come to camp and by the end of the week they are able to open up and talk about their situation with others.”

While it may be expected that the kids might have a hard time articulating themselves, the Kesem counselors noted the maturity level demonstrated by the campers during the cabin talks. The campers are at varying stages in the process; some come to camp after a parent’s recent diagnosis, some parents have been in treatment for years, some are in remission and some have passed away. Because of the variety of experiences in dealing with cancer, there are ample opportunities for both campers and counselors to teach and support each other.

Megan Choi, sophomore biology major and a coordinator in charge of camper care, remarked on the selflessness of each camper during cabin talks.

“Not all the questions are directly related to experiences with cancer. One of my favorite questions to ask the kids is, if they had three wishes, what would they be,” Choi said. “One girl wished for nobody to be sick, for nobody to be sad and for nobody to be fighting. She was around 10 years old. It was amazing.”

This week is Kesem Week, where the organization’s coordinators will host informational sessions for those hoping to get involved with the organization. Students can apply to be counselors for the camp that will take place in Summer 2012, from June 17 to 22. Camp Kesem is looking for counselors who are currently college students and enjoy working with kids. However, applicants do not have to have been closely affected by cancer to become Kesem counselors.

“What is most important is that you are able to support kids in that situation,” Horn said. “We look for people who are funny and creative.”

All students are encouraged to get involved, as it helps develop leadership and team-building skills and helps to raises cancer awareness, Taverrite said.

“It’s such a good way to give back,” Taverrite said. “It’s a really great group of people that comes together for a great cause.”

Horn said that one of the most valuable things she has taken from Camp Kesem is being able to see the campers’ development over the past three years, as many of the campers become regulars.

“It’s great that I’ve had this since freshman year. I love it,” Horn said. “But just one year will change your life.”

The first Camp Kesem info session will be held today at 11:50 a.m. in Olson 251. For a complete schedule of Kesem Week events, visit the Facebook page at www.facebook.com/event.php?eid=114369772008373.

LANI CHAN can be reached at features@theaggie.org.

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