Helping kids be kids

Rice chapter of Camp Kesem organizes summer camp for children of cancer patients

Childhood is supposed to be one of the happiest times in an individual’s life, but for more than 3 million children with parents suffering from cancer, it can be a sad, confusing and stressful time. However, through involvement in a national organization, Rice students are working to brighten the lives of children of cancer patients.

Camp Kesem volunteers

Founded in 2000, Camp Kesem is a one-of-a-kind national nonprofit group that organizes free summer camps to provide emotional support and fun experiences for children affected by a parent’s cancer.

The Rice chapter of Camp Kesem, founded in 2013 with support from a LIVESTRONG Community Impact Grant, will host its first camp Aug. 3-8 at the Uskichitto Retreat Center in LeBlanc, La. Camp activities will include swimming, archery, rock climbing, canoeing, team sports and more.

While its main focus is on children, Camp Kesem also involves college students. With 54 student chapters in 27 states across the country, Camp Kesem is completely organized and run by full-time undergraduate students. Each student chapter is responsible for fundraising, marketing, project management and other responsibilities associated with administering the camp.

The Rice chapter is headed by sophomores Stacey Yi and Mariah Lawhon and includes more than 100 student volunteers.

“The needs of these children are often not addressed,” Yi said. “They suffer quietly, which can have long-lasting effects. This free overnight camp allows kids to gain strength and confidence, make friends with similar experiences and just have fun. Our ultimate goal is to create a peer network for these kids that has a lifelong impact.”

Lawhon said the camp is also a great opportunity for college students, who gain leadership skills and nonprofit experience through involvement with the camp.

“It’s great to see this many college students actively engaged in service,” she said. “The passion and enthusiasm of Camp Kesem volunteers is infectious. All of our student leaders put in so much time and energy to bring our goal to life. It has been such a special experience seeing the personal growth of each of our volunteers, and I’m excited to see this leadership development continue in future years.”

Mac Griswold, director of Rice’s Community Involvement Center and staff adviser to Camp Kesem Rice, said the chapter represents “an incredible opportunity for students to work with a community organization to help address an identified need in the Houston area.”

“Students, while acting on their personal values and belief systems, are also able to gain leadership and organizational skills that will help them become more active citizens in the future,” Griswold said. “This group, built on Rice’s spirit of student self-governance, has appropriately planned the management of risk, finances and human resources for this complex event. The students should be proud of all they have accomplished in a short period of time and will undoubtedly be offering a life-changing experience to many of their campers.”

Yi said the organization is especially close to her heart because of her personal experience of losing her mother to cancer at the age of 10.

“My mom was diagnosed with advanced stomach cancer when I was 9 and passed away soon after I turned 10,” Yi said. “My world fell out from beneath my feet, and I didn’t know what to say or do. From her diagnosis to her death, I struggled a lot and felt very alone and misunderstood. I wanted to talk, but it was too painful to talk about it with my family, my friends had no idea what I was going through and I was virtually silent when I visited my counselor.”

Yi said when she heard about Camp Kesem in college and visited a camp over the summer, she was moved to tears.

“I so wished that I had had it as a resource when I was a kid, and that’s when I knew I had to help bring it to Houston,” Yi said. “There are so many kids in and around Houston who don’t know about or haven’t had access to Camp Kesem, and now we have an opportunity to bring this magic to them. I’m excited to help these kids realize what it took me so long to realize: that they are not alone, their struggles don’t identify them, and there are peers and role models who believe in them and will support them all the way through.”

The organization will host Camp Kesem Week April 7-12 to raise awareness about the organization and raise funds for the camp, which will serve at least 30 children between the ages of 6 and 16 from Southeast Texas and Southwest Louisiana. The week will include a Community Information Night April 8 at 7:30 p.m. in Keck Hall, Room 100. Families of potential campers and community members who want more information are invited to attend. A full list of Camp Kesem Week activities is available at http://campkesem.org/rice/camp-kesem-week.

Both Yi and Lawhon hope their efforts will have a positive impact on the lives of the children.

“Though the need for Camp Kesem may be quiet, it has proven to be tremendous,” Yi and Lawhon said. “Our chapter shines a light on this often-overlooked issue to open the eyes of our community to the silent needs of these children, and we empower Rice students and the Houston community to help meet these needs.”

For more information on the Rice chapter of Camp Kesem or to make a donation, visit http://campkesem.org/rice.

About Amy Hodges

Amy is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.