Magic camp comes to Hopkins, helps children cope with cancer

By PAVITRA GUDUR | October 12, 2011

Camp Kesem, a college student run one-week sleepaway camp, provides children from ages six to thirteen with a parent who has or has had cancer with summer camp experiences that give them opportunities to be kids. In the United States alone, there are over 1.7 million cancer cases a year that affect individuals and their families. Adults have the means to seek support, but the emotional needs of children of adults afflicted with cancer are often overlooked. In many cases, kids must deal with emotional baggage and personal tragedies on their own. As a result, the sons and daughters of cancer patients miss many of the simple joys of childhood.

Kesem means "magic" in Hebrew, and the founders of Camp Kesem chose to utilize the word "kesem" in the camp's name because their goal was to bring magic to families coping with cancer.

Camp Kesem started a little over ten years ago via the vision of a student named Iris Rave at Stanford University. Rave had experience being a camp counselor for children with serious illnesses and was inspired to start her own camp for children. After looking at the resources available to children in the greater Palo Alto area, she realized that kids with parents who have cancer are an underserved population. She invested her time and energy into recruiting other student volunteers, fundraising and creating community partnerships to start the very first Camp Kesem. The current camp director for Camp Kesem, Scott Arizala, described the impact of the first camp in an e-mail to The News-Letter.

"Every summer since, more students have become aware of Camp Kesem, and chapters started to pop up all over the country. From one camp in 2001 to 38 camps the next summer, Camp Kesem has grown from a small grassroots effort to a national organization and movement in the fields of youth development and cancer support," Arizala wrote.

Since 2001, Camp Kesem engages its campers for a week every year through activities like sports, arts and crafts and drama. The campers participate in "Cabin Chats" with fellow campers and counselors in order to share their experiences with each other. Due to the financial burden placed on families coping with cancer, the camp programs at Camp Kesem are offered free of charge.

While Camp Kesem greatly impacts the lives of children, it prepares and empowers student leaders by allowing responsible college-age individuals to make a difference. The college students who help run the camp gain hands-on-experience in the areas of fundraising, finance, marketing and product management. They channel their passion for making a difference and develop critical leadership skills. At the same time, they bring much needed happiness to truly deserving kids. To ensure that campers receive extra attention, the camp has a two to one camper to counselor ratio; these counselors strive to make camp a safe, supportive, high-energy and fun place for every camper.

Through the 2011 Community Impact Project, LIVESTRONG will fund the replication of this program at 12 universities with seed funding of $10,000 per campus. These funds will not go directly to the school, but will instead be managed by Camp Kesem for students to use towards camp expenses. Hopkins is among the 12 universities that will receive $10,000 to run a Camp Kesem.

Seniors Nikki Jiam, Fareedat Oluyadi and Synteche Ribeiro invested their time and efforts in order to establish a branch of Camp Kesem at Hopkins. Jiam learned about Camp Kesem through an article and wanted to get involved with the Camp Kesem community after attending a Halloween social for children with cerebral palsy. She realized that the kids suffering from cerebral palsy desired to be socially accepted and to have a childhood, something that is often denied to young people who suffer from disease and the hardship it brings. The combination of the article and the Halloween social struck home for Jiam. She had friends working at Camp Kesem at Arizona State University and recounted how they had described helping out with Camp Kesem to be the most meaningful experiences of their lives. As a result, Jiam went online to do research in order to bring Camp Kesem to Hopkins.

Synteche Ribeiro shared her views on why she wanted to start a Camp Kesem chapter at Hopkins.

"I wanted to bring Camp Kesem to Hopkins because there is an extensive history of all sorts of cancers on both sides of my families, and I have lost friends and relatives to the disease. I feel that having a camp like this in Baltimore is extremely important. There are most certainly people in the community around us whose children are watching their parents battle cancer. Giving them a week to just be themselves again and not having to worry about whether or not they can afford it is exactly what they need," Ribeiro said.

Jiam submitted the application to establish a Camp Kesem early fall of last year. In January, Camp Kesem representatives responded and said that they were interested in beginning a chapter at Hopkins and putting Hopkins on the waitlist. In order to get off of the waitlist and establish a camp, colleges and universities must prove that running the camp will be sustainable and show why they want to start the camp.

After forming an advisory board and attending an interview with the national director, Jiam, Oluyadi and Ribeiro waited to find out whether Hopkins made the cut or not. They learned that Camp Kesem was one of the four organizations selected by the LIVESTRONG Community Impact Project committee to receive seed money and were told they must start the application process all over again as a result. Unlike before, the application was open to more people; Hopkins became a finalist, and the fate of developing a branch was put to a vote online for about twenty days in the midst of finals. Camp Kesem divided all of the colleges and universities that applied into twelve regions. As long as Hopkins garnered the top number of votes in its region, the University could establish a Camp Kesem chapter on campus.

"Individuals outside of the Hopkins community could vote as well. Against schools like Ohio State University, Vanderbilt University and the University of Pennsylvania, Hopkins had to collect the most votes in its region. We rallied people, carried laptops around with us and went all out to get people to vote. It was like a popularity vote, but it was for a really good cause," Jiam said.

"The location was up to an online vote to see where there was the most support for a camp. It does take a lot of funding to start up and maintain a camp. The student body responded fairly well during the voting period. We set up a table at FFC and in the library to have people vote for a Johns Hopkins camp. We had a Facebook group, and we reached out to many of our other group, friend, family and department connections for votes," Ribeiro said.

When the voting ended, Hopkins received the most number of votes in its region and the second highest number of votes in the nation.

"Like the University of Southern California, Columbia University and the University of Miami, Hopkins could now run a Camp Kesem. A program like this has never been established anywhere in Maryland. We were honored to receive a personal congratulations from President Ron Daniels," Jiam said.

Camp Kesem at Hopkins will open in the summer of 2012. Each camp chooses where they wish to hold their camp program. Campuses usually rent an off-site camp facility for the week of camp.

"We are currently preparing for the first Camp Kesem at Johns Hopkins University for this coming summer and are currently fundraising, getting camp sites locked in, etc," Ribeiro said.

Jiam will attend the Camp Kesem national conference in two weeks and is currently in contact with campus support centers and oncologists at Union Memorial Hospital. She is in the process of forming an advisory board comprised of five professors and securing a camp location.

"There are strengths and challenges for every campus. The key ingredient to a successful Camp Kesem is the student leaders. These young people need to be passionate and energetic to do the amount of volunteer work needed to put together a week of camp. Johns Hopkins is perfect for Camp Kesem because of the students involved," Arizala wrote.

Post-camp surveys completed by campers and parents show that Camp Kesem programs increase self-esteem and the number of friendships between children who have or have had parents with cancer. By encompassing the camp's values of compassion, community, safety, confidence, leadership and magic, Jiam, Oluyadi and Ribeiro hope to continue this tradition starting next year at Hopkins.

Comments powered by Disqus

Please note All comments are eligible for publication in The News-Letter.