Making magic for the children of cancer patients

Rice’s Camp Kesem helps children of individuals affected by cancer

“My camp name is Cat, and the reason I’m at Camp Kesem is because my mom has breast cancer.”

This isn’t the introduction you’d expect from someone on the first day of summer camp. But Camp Kesem is not your ordinary summer camp. (“Kesem” is Hebrew for “magic.”)

Camp Kesem campers enjoy the low ropes course.

Camp Kesem kids enjoy the low-ropes course.

Held Aug. 3-8 at the idyllic Uskichitto Retreat Center in LeBlanc, La., Camp Kesem gave approximately 30 children between the ages of 6 and 16 from Louisiana and Texas to experience swimming, archery, rock climbing, arts and crafts and more.

Founded in 2013, Camp Kesem Rice is one of 54 student chapters in the national organization, the country’s only nonprofit dedicated to organizing free summer camps to provide emotional support, camaraderie and fun experiences for children affected by a parent’s cancer. Kids and counselors were encouraged to choose a special name to use exclusively during the week of activities.

Wiess College junior David “Smooches” Kim, one of the 19 Rice counselors and administrative team members, said that bringing together children with similar life experiences is what makes Camp Kesem live up to its magical name. He said that despite their young ages, the campers are very open about what that they’ve had to deal with and really supportive of one another.

“One kid is like, ‘My dad passed away,’ and another kid is like, ‘It’s okay. I lost my mom. I understand,'” Kim said. “Seeing these kids bond over something and being around other people like them is just amazing.”

“The Doctor,” a camper from New Orleans, chose a nickname inspired by the popular British television show “Dr. Who,” a favorite of his and his mother, who died a few weeks ago. He described camp as “energizing and fun” and said that it was a good place to talk about his feelings.

“She was just a really great person,” The Doctor said about his mother. “She was a person who would never stop fighting and wanted to help everybody.”

“The Doctor” said that he was able to bond with other campers who had lost parents. “Even though (our parents) died, we can keep on going,” he said. “We will always remember them.”

Rice student Stacey “Sunshine” Yi can identify with kids like “The Doctor.” She was inspired to found the Rice chapter of Camp Kesem after losing her mother to cancer at age 10.

“I can really relate to these kids,” Yi said. “You see them having fun, and they are just like normal, healthy kids, but they’re really dealing with a lot on the inside. It can be really lonely. They go to school, and they have this big burden that is theirs alone to bear – no one really knows what it’s like (to have a parent with cancer) and the kids don’t necessarily want to talk about it.”

Yi co-directs the Rice chapter with Mariah “Bubbles” Lawhon, who said that one of the best things about camp is its “unmatched” peer support and how “naturally therapeutic” it is for the children.

“A lot of these kids have never been able to relate to other kids their age because of their situation,” Lawson said. “They have a parent who has either died from cancer, currently has cancer or is in remission, and because of that, they have kind of lost a little piece of their childhood. Coming to Camp Kesem, they’re kind of able to regain that for the week. They can let loose, have fun and be around other kids their age who can connect with them and know what they’ve been through, and I think that’s really, really special.”

At the end of each day, counselors gathered for small-group conversations with their campers. It was during these sessions that Kim, Yi and Lawhon said they witnessed firsthand the strength and positivity displayed by the kids.

“(My mother) is going through her second time (facing breast cancer), and she’s going to fight through it,” said “Bumblebee,” from Kenner, La. She said that the best thing about Camp Kesem is being with people “who are going through the same thing I am.”

“Bumblebee” added that camp is “really fun.”

“You get to sleep in cabins, there’s a rock-climbing wall, a pool and a bunch of other fun activities,” she said.

“I Got Mustard On My Feet,” from Austin, Texas, whose name was inspired by an accident in the mess hall, called Camp Kesem Rice “a very good place.” His father was diagnosed with leukemia in April, and he said his fellow campers in similar situations should not give up.

“You always have to have faith and know that your parent is going to be all right, no matter what happens,” he said.

With student chapters in 27 states across the country, Camp Kesem is completely organized and run by full-time undergraduate students. Each chapter is responsible for fundraising, marketing, project management and other responsibilities associated with administering the camp. The Rice chapter raised over $34,000.

“Cancer is such a financial burden for families, and we want to make sure (paying for camp) is not a worry for them,” said David “Rufio” Lam, Camp Kesem Rice’s public relations coordinator.

The Rice volunteers contacted hospitals in the Texas Medical Center, bereavement centers and cancer support groups and also posted on blogs and dropped off brochures to spread the word about the Camp Kesem opportunity. Because of the limited amount of financial resources and the need to have enough counselors available to ensure individual attention to each child, the program is set up to process applications on a first-come, first-served basis, and a waiting list is created if the number of applicants exceeds the number of openings. The program director screens applications to make sure the camp and kids are a good fit.

To prepare for the emotional challenges of counseling kids whose parents have cancer and how to answer their questions, the Rice volunteers spent fours hours a week during spring semester in training sessions taught by members of the executive board of Camp Kesem Rice. They also had to complete 18 online sessions designed by the national Camp Kesem staff.

Tracey “Pebbles” Landstrom, a program director with the national Camp Kesem organization, said that the Rice students are “extremely on top of things.”

“They’ve had an incredible year,” she said. “They have a full camp, they raised more money than we asked our first-year campuses to raise and they’re all just so motivated. It’s been amazing to work with them.”

Landstrom likens Camp Kesem responsibilities to running a nonprofit organization.

“(These students) have to do everything,” she said. “While they have someone from the national organization overseeing them, they are the ones holding the fundraisers, recruiting families, sustaining relationships, recruiting and training student volunteers and doing all the PR, social media and marketing. It’s a full-on business that they’re running while being students, and it’s incredible.”

Anjali “Sparkle” Raghuram, Camp Kesem Rice’s development coordinator, said she is proud of the personal development she has witnessed among her fellow counselors.

“We’ve grown as leaders and as people, and I think we’re going to take these skills and carry them with us wherever we go,” she said.

Despite the many valuable life lessons the counselors took away from this experience, the team agreed that what they treasured most was the opportunity to impact the lives of children who needed them.

“Camp Kesem is a chance for us to connect with these children and have conversations with them so they can realize, ‘Hey, it’s okay; life will go on,” Raghuram said. “And we can also help them realize they can have fun and treasure the people in their lives and make connections with special people who share their personal backgrounds.”

When asked about his counselors, “I Got Mustard On My Feet” described them as “fun, cool, nice, polite and super duper.”

“Bumblebee” agreed.

“They’re really great and really nice and they basically do everything for us,” she said. “Even though they’re really strict about lights out, I love them.”

As for the camp, “Bumblebee” said, “It’s so much fun! I just don’t want to leave. I wish this lasted the entire summer!”

“The Doctor” summed up his entire experience in just three words.

“Camp Kesem rocks!” he exclaimed.

“I Got Mustard On My Feet” also wanted to thank those who made it possible for him and his fellow campers to attend Camp Kesem Rice.

“It’s awesome; I appreciate it,” he said. “Double thumbs-up. You get a double thumbs- up.”

Lawhon noted that although the camp is over, their connections to the kids will continue. “We want to serve the families year-round, not just through the week of camp,” she said. “We plan to stay in touch and to have two camp reunions in the fall and spring. And then we’ll be getting pumped up for next year’s camp.”

About Amy McCaig

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