Across the nation college students are preparing for Camp Kesem, a network of more than 100 summer camps for kids whose parents are battling or have battled cancer. The camp is run by the national organization Kesem, and the camp is free to the kids and offers a chance for a group, which is often forced to grow up quickly, to be kids and have fun.
Kesem member Haley Gumenick, whose camp experience began in high school when she was a camper, returned to the camp as a counselor. Last summer was her seventh time volunteering for Camp Kesem. Having gone to other camps, Gumenick said her Kesem experience stands apart and has helped shape her views of education, as she now student teaches.
“It’s camp for kids who have a parent with cancer, which sounds really sad when you say it,” Gumenick said. “Even when I was camper I was like, ‘I don’t want to go to that because I don’t want to be sad for a week,’ but it’s so completely different from that.”
The camps, which are staffed by undergraduate students, feature activities like ropes courses, talent shows, swimming, paint wars, capture the flag and an event called "Empowerment," where campers can talk about their experiences being impacted by a parent’s cancer.
Co-director of the MSU Kesem chapter Cameron Tinsley said he got involved with Kesem after a friend shoved him into a car to go to his first meeting. After, he witnessed the passion of the organization’s members to help kids, he knew he had to become involved.
Tinsley said last year, their chapter was able to send 120 kids to camp.
“To see the love and support all of these kids give each other, I can honestly say these kids will be stronger than I ever will be, and some of them are six years old and that is something to cherish,” Tinsley said. “I think a lot of people in our community kind of forget that there are situations like that out there and there are circumstances where kids have to grow up faster than they should.”
Camp counselor Gabbi O’Connell said part of what makes the camp unique is the unspoken connection all the kids have. The shared experience of being impacted by a parent’s cancer and the weeklong opportunity to let the kids just have fun is what makes the camp so special, O’Connell said.
O’Connell, who lost her mom to cancer age 11 and didn’t go to the camp as a kid, said she wishes she had known about Kesem as a kid. She has taken it upon herself to try to get as many kids as she can to go to the camp.
“Getting to camp, I was thinking I’d be the one helping them, and even after the first day I immediately knew they were helping me in more ways than I could even imagine," O'Connell said. "Some of the strongest kids ever would speak up about their experiences and really just lift each other up in ways I’ve never experienced before, so that was really empowering for me to even see as an adult now.”
Co-director of MSU Kesem Peter Butkovich said the dynamic of the group is like a family, and he takes pride in the organization and the passion of its members.
“I personally love everybody that’s a part of the organization. I’ve met some incredible people, some incredible undergraduate, graduate students that have come interested in the organization and helping out at Camp Kesem,” Butkovich said. “The children I’ve met, the parents I’ve met, they’ve changed my life really, and I mean that from the bottom of my heart.”
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