Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
July 8, 2020

Camp Kesem supports families fighting cancer

By CLAIRE FOX | February 23, 2017


COURTESY OF CHRISTOPHER NG Camp Kesem invites children with family members affected by cancer for a week-long trip.

Since its founding in 2011, the Hopkins chapter of Camp Kesem has supported children in Maryland whose family members have been affected by cancer by hosting a week-long summer camp.

Founded at Stanford University in 2000 and now expanded to 80 chapters nationwide, student leaders at Hopkins are holding the sixth annual free overnight camp at Camp St. Charles in Newburg, Maryland this August.

The Hopkins chapter serves just under 70 campers per year with a staff of about 30 volunteer counselors.

In her second year of working with Camp Kesem, sophomore Farrah Lin described the Camp’s central goal as one of providing support for these children.

“The nature of Kesem is a warm and encouraging environment, and it’s a place where the kids can feel comfortable expressing their feelings about sensitive topics, feel connected to other children their age going through a similar thing and feel more confident about handling challenges,” she said.

Serving as a volunteer coordinator this year, Lin is responsible for the recruitment and training of camp counselors.

“Being a counselor at an overnight camp requires a lot of interaction with the campers, and the campers look up to the counselors as peers and role models,” Lin said. “There are all kinds of ways someone can be good with kids, and we just look for someone who would add to the welcoming environment and support network for our Kesem campers.”

Junior Erica Ma, director of the Hopkins chapter, echoed Lin’s sentiment about providing a stress-free and fun support environment for campers. She describedhow the camp is the only nonprofit organization to provide this sort of support.

“We are the only Camp Kesem chapter between Pennsylvania and Washington D.C., so our service area runs all the way to Virginia sometimes,” Ma said.

Having served as a student leader last summer, Lin was impressed by the camp’s far-reaching impact, which sometimes goes beyond the local area.

“Kids typically attend the camp closest to them, but one of the most surprising things to me is that some our campers who have moved away from the area still come back to attend our camp,” Lin said. “Just the fact that they’re willing to travel back for the JHU Camp Kesem speaks about the connections they make to other campers and the sense of community that’s here for them.”

At the camp, both campers and counselors choose cute and quirky character names for themselves. According to senior Diana Lee, who is the camp’s marketing and public relations coordinator, the names serve as a reminder that the camp world is different from the real world.

“We want the children to have fun at camp, be imaginative and to develop personalities and stories without the stress of their parents’ cancer,” she wrote in an email to The News-Letter. “For example, mine is Ravioli!”

Other camp names include Goku, Kiwi, Turtleneck, Froyo and many more.

Though planning for camp and recruiting counselors has been an eye-opening experience, Ma concluded that nothing beats the camp experience itself.

“I love spending time with the campers, going paddle-boating or even just playing gaga ball and tetherball,” she said.

For her, the most memorable events at camp are the Empowerment Ceremonies.

“During this event, the campers open up and share their experiences with their parents’ cancer, and you really feel completely humbled and impressed by how strong these children are,” Ma said. “Even as a 21-year-old, I can’t imagine how to emotionally and mentally handle having my mom or dad be diagnosed with cancer.”

Ma also spoke about the effects of the program on her as a volunteer.

“Seeing them experience and overcome their fears and sadness makes me extremely honored to be able to share a week of my summer with them,” she said.

Having personally witnessed her mother take care of her grandmother during her fight with cancer, Lin is determined to support and help these children.

“With all the fun and games that we have at camp, it’s easy to forget that all of the campers have been touched by a parent’s cancer, but that’s good because we want them to have a blast,” Lin said.

She also spoke about the self-fulfillment she feels when working with the kids.

“The smiles on their faces and the families’ genuine appreciation for Kesem makes the work that we do throughout the year to fundraise, plan, train counselors and prepare for camp worth it,” she said.

Lin compared the feelings she had while participating in Camp Kesem last summer to those felt during a concert.

“Just like people feel hyped at a concert of thousands of people or comforted at home with friends or family, I feel a sense of empowerment at Camp Kesem,” she said. “The kids are such wonderful and strong people, and the bond that comes with sharing a more sensitive side of life isn’t something you can replicate somewhere else.”

So far this year, the chapter has held a Krispy Kreme fundraiser, a fall reunion to catch up with the campers and their families and a Giving Tuesday social media campaign to encourage people to donate to the Camp Kesem cause.

Moving forward, the Hopkins chapter looks to expand its membership both in terms of its campers and its in volunteers.

“We want to be able to support more children and also give more undergraduate students the opportunity to experience Camp Kesem,” Ma said. “My goal is to build a strong community, where our old and new counselors will actively work together to create an amazing camp experience every year together.”

One a similar note, Lee spoke about raising awareness on campus about the services the organization provides.

“Like Camp Kesem at other universities, our chapter has been trying to establish a strong presence on campus and to gift JHU students with a unique experience of coordinating all that is necessary to make Camp Kesem a carefree time for these children,” she wrote.

Overall, Ma describes Camp Kesem as an unparalleled experience for everyone involved.

“What I’ve seen JHU Camp Kesem do is become a staple in the lives of these children,” Ma said. “I’ve seen these campers grow each and every year and how much they love coming back to camp to see their friends — they can’t imagine summers without Camp Kesem, and neither can I.”

Applications for counselor positions in the summer are currently open. Interested students are encouraged to apply at:

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