Children dealing with a parent’s cancer treatment bear burdens and worries well beyond their years. They worry about their parent, are sometimes teased or bullied at school for being different and often feel like they must put on a brave face and deal with all their emotions alone. Camp Kesem, a summer camp exclusively for children whose parents have cancer, changes all of that by providing kids a chance to connect with others facing the same struggles within a fun, loving environment.
The camp is free to attend, the only requirement being that kids must have a parent who has been diagnosed with cancer. Siblings are encouraged to attend camp together. Currently there are 86 Camp Kesem chapters and counting across the U.S., and each is organized and run by college student volunteers. The camp also has nurses, camp advisors and a mental health professional on hand during the week, working behind the scenes to make sure all camp activities run smoothly.
Coastal Virginia is home to a Camp Kesem chapter at William & Mary in Williamsburg. Started in 2013, the program draws kids from all over southeastern Virginia, as well as North Carolina, Washington, D.C. and Richmond. This year, close to 100 campers will arrive in late August for a week of fun at Camp Piankatank, located on more than 90 acres of land surrounded by water, forests and marshes in Hartfield, Virginia. Campers will take part in all the typical camp activities, from canoeing and archery to campfires and arts and crafts.
While camp can’t erase the uncertainties kids face after a parent’s cancer diagnosis, staff work to create an atmosphere where kids can be free to express and enjoy themselves without judgment. “Camp Kesem is different because of the support we provide to campers,” says Sydney Hecht, a William & Mary sophomore from Tucson, Ariz., who is looking forward to her second year as a counselor. “Being around other kids who are facing the same challenges gives them a place where they can talk openly with others about what they are going through.”
Hecht’s mom was diagnosed with cancer when she was in middle school, and she understands the fears campers face. “I talk with kids who have had similar experiences, and we form a bond,” she says. “I don’t think I handled things nearly as well as they do. Being around the kids has been so helpful for me, too.”
The counselors are a big part of why Camp Kesem is such a magical place. “Counselors really set the tone for the campers’ experiences, and they take that duty seriously,” says Hannah Zarnich, a junior at William & Mary who acts as camp director. “Before the campers arrive, everyone decorates the cabins for the kids. On the first day of camp, counselors line up to greet campers waving colorful welcome signs and just going crazy.”
While the camp is for kids ages 6 to 16, 17- and 18-year-olds have the option of attending as counselors in training (CITs). Not technically campers, CITs still enjoy the camp experience. Working closely with counselors, CITs interact with all the campers during the week and take part in workshops to learn about leadership and teambuilding. Their final project is organizing the camp talent show at the end of the week.
“Cancer is a dramatic, life-changing event, and Camp Kesem is able to provide campers with specialized, one-on-one attention,” Zarnich says. “Campers bond over serious topics, and that brings everyone closer together. By the end of the week, we are all like family.”
“The air of positivity at camp is unbelievable,” Hecht adds. “The kids give each other ‘razzles,’ which are little compliments that anyone can give at any time. One night the campers in my bunk spent 45 minutes giving each other razzles before finally falling asleep.”
Zarnich has seen firsthand the changes the campers at Camp Kesem can undergo. “A lot of times the older kids feel like they are ‘too cool for school,’” she says. “They are tentative and shy, but by the second day, they are so into the camp experience. I love to see the transformation from day one to the last day. The experience empowers the William & Mary students, too, and it has an amazing effect on our lives. Many college students are looking for a purpose, and volunteering at Camp Kesem helps them find a way to make a difference in the world.”
For more information on Camp Kesem, visit CampKesem.org/WilliamMary.