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Davis, California

Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Camp Kesem positively impacts the children it serves and the student who volunteer

Kesem provides community and support to camp attendees and students who are connected to the club


By AMBER WARNKE — features@theaggie.org 


Camp Kesem is a national nonprofit organization that was founded in 2000 and provides free week-long overnight summer camps for children six to 18 who are impacted by a parent’s cancer diagnosis. The organization collaborates with over 130 college chapters in 44 states, which staff and fundraise for the camps. In 2021, Kesem served nearly 7,000 children with over 5,000 student volunteers.

Asher Rose, a first-year political science and sociology double major at UCSB, attended the UC Davis-run Kesem camp as a child. He grew up in Davis and was familiar with Kesem from the organization’s mural downtown. When his mom was diagnosed with cancer, he asked her to send him to the camp just four months later. 

“I’m really glad I got to go that summer because I don’t know what I would have done without it,” Rose said.

Rose said the camp helped him accept his mom’s diagnosis and find a community that understood how he was feeling. 

“The support system is the biggest thing that I would say that I’ve gotten from camp,” Rose said. “It’s very alienating, I would say, to be a kid and have a parent who has cancer. It’s hard, and you feel like not a lot of people really understand what you’re going through because a lot of people don’t. But Kesem really gives you that space to have that shared community to rely on. I wasn’t totally alone. I had a group of people I could really talk to, […] who would really understand what I was talking about.”

Second-year design and English double major Faith Arnett has been a general member in Kesem at UC Davis for two years. She said she decided to join after seeing a flier for the club in Wellman Hall. Arnett shared that her mom was diagnosed with cancer when she was young. 

“Now, I wish I had Kesem when I was a kid,” Arnett said. “It would have been great just to meet other kids whose parents also had cancer because it’s kind of hard to bring that up in school.” 

According to Arnett, not everyone knows how to react when kids say their parents have cancer, but Kesem provides a space where kids can be supported.

“You’ll get a lot of pity, […] It’s coming from a good place, but at the end of the day, that’s not what a child needs at that age,” Arnett said. “They don’t need pity, they need support. They need companionship. They need to know that there are other people who are also going through the same thing they are, and that’s exactly what Kesem does for these kids. It gives them a sense of community rather than being ‘the kid with a parent who has cancer.’”

Arnett attended Kesem for the first time as a counselor in summer 2022 and found that the camp does a good job balancing traditional camp activities with activities designed to give kids a space to process their parents’ diagnoses.

“We have a day in the week called ‘Empowerment,’ where we get a little bit more serious,” Arnett said. “This is where they talk about the family members they’re here for. We all sit there and listen, as we all support them. There’s a lot of tears on that day and a lot of crying, but at the end of it, I think we just all feel so immensely close to each other, and it’s just such an incredible feeling seeing those kids being so vulnerable with each other.”

Fourth-year music and sociocultural anthropology double major and UC Davis Kesem Chapter Co-Director Cloe DeBarros has been involved in Kesem for over 13 years, having attended camp since the age of 10. 

“[Kesem] definitely changed my coping skills, my perspective [and] my understanding of things,” DeBarros said. “Honestly, for the most part, it just told me that I wasn’t alone in how I was feeling.”

DeBarros’s mom is a cancer survivor. When she was diagnosed, DeBarros was only six, but as the oldest sibling, she took responsibility for the family. DeBarros said that at the time, she often felt guilty after her mom’s diagnosis. However, at Kesem, she was able to focus on her own needs.

“A lot of the time I blamed myself for the things that were going on in my family and what my mom was going through,” DeBarros said. “I kind of just put it on myself because I was the older child, and I was like, ‘Oh I have to take care of my family.’ I took the step up to be the more mature child because I have a younger brother, and I didn’t really want to focus on my own childhood, being a kid. So when I got to camp, it was that chance for me to just have fun [and] enjoy myself.”

Fourth-year human development major Jenna Larson said she didn’t want to go to camp when her mom initially suggested it after her dad passed away from cancer. 

“I was super anti-Kesem when my mom presented it to me when I was 13, and I had a terrible attitude,” Larson said. “I just didn’t want to do anything. I was very against it, going to what I saw as ‘cancer camp.’ But it ended up playing such a huge role in my life, and as much as I wanted to hate it, I loved it, and I met so many amazing people, and now I don’t know what I’m going to do without it after I graduate.”

Arnett has also made many close friends through her participation in Kesem in college. 

“Kesem is one of the most amazing things in college that I didn’t think was going to happen,” Arnett said. “It brings together so many good people.”

Larson feels similarly.

“I would not be anywhere without Kesem in my college experience,” Larson said. “All of my best friends are from Kesem. My friends outside of Kesem are like, ‘Oh my God, Kesem is your whole personality,’ but it is; it’s totally shaped who I am.” 

When asked to describe what Kesem represents in one sentence, Larson responded, “Resilience.”

Written by: Amber Warnke — features@theaggie.org