At Camp Kesem, for one week every summer, kids with parents who have or had cancer get to escape the stresses and fears of their everyday life and spend a fun-filled week at camp just being kids.
‘Kesem’ means magic in Hebrew. Camp Kesem is a nationwide organization led by college students whose mission is to support children through and beyond their parent’s cancer.
The organization was started in 2001 at Stanford University, and since then has spread to more than 100 other colleges around the United States, each with chapters of student volunteers who plan and put on week-long camps and various year-round events and reunions for their campers.
Camp Kesem is a free, overnight camp for campers ages 6 to 16. Campers and counselors choose camp names to go by during the week and spend the week participating in classic summer camp activities like tie-dying clothing and swimming, all while surrounded and supported by peers who have gone through similar situations and experience similar feelings.
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In January 2014, Fresno State became the first school in the California State University system to become home to a Camp Kesem chapter, and in August 2015, with 26 campers,volunteers held their first year of camp in Yosemite National Park. In the summer of 2016, the camp family grew to 32 campers and the excursion was moved to the Santa Cruz mountains.
This year the chapter hopes to welcome more local children and take 45 campers, including five CITs (counselors in training), who will be ages 17-18. Camp Kesem at Fresno State is the only chapter serving families in the Central Valley.
This year, 15 coordinator board members (most of whom will also serve as counselors during the summer) and another 12 counselors have been working to get ready for this summer’s camp. I spoke with two Camp Kesem at Fresno State student volunteers to learn more about Camp Kesem, why it’s so special, and what the camp and organization means to them.
Jillian Millares (Camp name: Meery)
Jillian Millares, a 2015 Fresno State graduate, used to work in an oncology department, where every day she saw kids who had cancer and how much it affected their parents.
“It’s really hard to see your kid go through cancer,” Millares said. “So I was just thinking, ‘I can’t imagine how hard it is to be a kid seeing their parent go through cancer.’ They’re still at that age where they’re developing, and having that [a parent’s cancer diagnosis] thrown in there, I just couldn’t imagine how difficult it must be for them.”
When she and her friend Amanda de Lima (also a 2015 Fresno State graduate) heard about Camp Kesem, they decided to bring it to Fresno State.
Along with other members of the first year’s coordinator board, Millares and de Lima planned all of the logistics and activities for camp, fundraised with a goal of raising $30,000, found campers and counselors to attend camp, and actually put the camp on.
“I think the most amazing part for me was, even after a couple of days, they [the campers] were like, ‘This is my family. These people are my family and I can’t wait for next year,’” Millares said. “I just thought, ‘That is the magic of Kesem and that’s only something you can see at camp. I don’t know any other summer camp where it’s been two days, and they’re like, ‘This is my family.’ And I thought that was just perfect.
“They’re just so strong,” Millares said of the campers. “I can’t imagine at that age going through something like that. And they all have such positivity still in their lives and optimism and hope, and that’s something that after coming back from camp I hope to have.”
Navmit Dhesi (Camp name: Coco)
Fresno State senior Navmit Dhesi, known around Kesem as Coco, has been serving as the Camp Kesem at Fresno State co-director for the past two years with her co-director Keandra “Jade” Bryson.
“We really want them to know that there are other kids that have gone through the same thing and that they can talk to each other and have that support system,” Dhesi said.
“The most amazing part is seeing the kids becoming so close with each other in that one week,” Dhesi said. “I think it’s kind of surprising to see how open they are to making friendships that actually matter and aren’t shallow friendships, and I think that for me it was really a lot of learning from the kids on how to be brave and how to be open to situations and not being afraid of things.”
Dhesi said that on the first night of camp the first summer, they had an impromptu dance party that set the tone for the rest of the week, and the rest of the organization’s goals — “This is a place to have fun and it doesn’t matter what we’ve been through back at home, that here we’re just going to be kids and we’re going to go crazy and we’re going to have fun.”
Dhesi also reflected on the Empowerment Ceremony, a time in the week where everyone has the chance to share his or her stories with cancer.
“It is the saddest part of camp,” Dhesi said. “But it’s also a really empowering time because it shows us all how we are connected and how we’re there for each other and that we’re not facing it alone.
“Up until that point, we were having fun, we were playing games, we were singing songs and they were having fun, but that’s [the Empowerment Ceremony] when you realize that what we did for the kids and what they did for each other was more than just a week of fun. It was something that they’ll definitely carry with them.”
“Now that I’ve been to camp,” Dhesi said. “I can put names to why ‘I Kesem’. I do it for Lovebiter, I do it for Bubbles, I do it for Excalibur, I do it for all of our kids that were there this year and all of the kids that we hope to have next year.”
‘Make the Magic’ of Kesem Possible
Camp Kesem is and always has been free for all campers to attend. This is important to the organization because it goes along with their mission of supporting children and not adding any extra stress to families’ cancer situations.
It costs around $1,000 to support a camper throughout an entire year of camp, year-round correspondence with counselors and camp reunions. The week of camp alone costs approximately $500 per camper. Because of this cost and their commitment to making camp free for all campers, counselors and coordinator board members work hard to obtain donations, without which the magic of Kesem could not happen.
The chapter’s largest fundraiser event of the year, called Make the Magic, will be held at 6 p.m. on Saturday, April 1, at Fort Washington Golf and Country Club in Fresno. The evening will include a seated dinner catered by Fort Washington, speeches by a past Camp Kesem counselor and camper and several opportunities to give charitably to the organization and help the ‘Make the Magic’ of Kesem a reality for campers this summer.
The community is invited to attend. Individual tickets ($50) and full tables ($450) are available for purchase at bit.ly/2017mtm. Questions about the event or other ways you can help support Camp Kesem at Fresno State can be directed to firstname.lastname@example.org. The chapter is on Facebook at facebook.com/campkesemfresnostate.
How to help
Attend: Make the Magic dinner and fundraiser will be held at 6 p.m, Sat. April 1 at Fort Washington Golf and Country Club, 10272 N. Millbrook Ave. Tickets: $50 for individual, or table of 10 for $450. Purchase at bit.ly/2017mtm.
Donate: Email email@example.com to find out how.