For almost 13 years, Stanford undergraduates have volunteered to organize Camp Kesem, a yearly sleepover summer camp for boys and girls aged six to 16 whose parents have or have had cancer.
In Hebrew, kesem means “magic.” For the Stanford students that make Camp Kesem a possibility, that magic is found in the community the camp nurtures.
“That magic comes from the people and the people alone,” said Ben Rosellini ’15.
The camper experience
According to Ben McKenzie ’15, a member of Kesem’s leadership team, the camp has two main purposes.
“We want to allow [the campers] to be kids, and to show them they’re not alone, to take away the isolating aspect of a parent who has cancer,” McKenzie said.
Perhaps the most distinctive aspect of the counseling experience is the nicknames each counselor assumes for the duration of their tenure.
“The names enable us to be our best selves when we take on the name and the persona behind that name,” explained Scott “Chimp” Swartz ’14, co-chair of the coordinator team.
As with any other camp, Camp Kesem features games, singing and nature hikes. However, there are also structured times when campers are given a safe space to share their experiences about their parents’ cancer. For example, the camp incorporates nightly “Cabin Chats” as well as a ceremony called “Roots,” which gives everyone a chance to talk about the impact cancer has had on their lives.
“The ‘Roots’ ceremony marks an incredible week of emotional shifts and makes everything after that even more special,” said Alan Propp ’16, who will return for his second summer as a counselor this year.
Expanding Camp Kesem
Camp Kesem has grown quickly from humble roots. Having started as a small project of the Stanford Hillel in 2001, the camp was initially only able to accommodate 37 campers, according to camp director Heather Paul. After the camp met with initial success, Hillel staff member Iris Rave founded Camp Kesem National in August 2002 in order to help other college students start similar programs.
Since then, Camp Kesem has grown to encompass 53 other camps hosted by different universities across the country, including UC-Berkeley, MIT, Yale and Northwestern.
Back at Stanford, the original Camp Kesem has expanded and will be at full capacity for this coming summer, hosting 130 campers.
Despite experiencing maximum enrollment, Stanford’s chapter of Kesem is currently focused on growing in depth rather than breadth, according to Paul, who added that she is working on developing an extensive program for counselor alumni that would allow them to stay involved even after graduation from Stanford.
That additional depth may also include more support for campers throughout the year. Reunions in the fall and spring have allowed campers to stay involved with Kesem. Meanwhile, staying updated with families’ situations when they are away from camp gives counselors the chance to support campers beyond the one-week camp.
“I get the best camper emails,” Paul said. “I love them. They make me so happy.” When the camp is not in session, the student leadership must devote a significant amount of time to raising funds to support the camp’s ability to not charge campers. Over the academic year, two coordinators work on funding from grants and individual ask letters.
Kesem also holds smaller fundraisers with other community organizations, like Treehouse, Pizza My Heart, Stanford Hair and the Athlete Date Auction. Sixty percent of Kesem’s funding, however, comes from private donors.
Ultimately, the counselors emphasized their desire to be a part of a community like none other.
“To see so many people who are so talented and knowledgeable give all of their resources to such a noble cause is so inspiring,” McKenzie said.
“It’s amazing to have the chance to contribute to the [kids’] happiness and well-being and to be a support network for them to rely on,” Rosellini said.
Contact Hannah Grace at hgrace ‘at’ stanford ‘dot’ edu.