There is always one service that changes you. Sometimes it’s expected, sometimes it’s not. Camp Kesem, also referred to as Magic, is a place where children with parents affected by cancer can feel comfortable and be themselves. It is also a place that many children in the Central Valley were able to call home this past summer. Camp Kesem is family.
A little over a year ago, myself and a group of my classmates at Fresno State began planning Camp Kesem. We divided up the responsibilities and I was given the task of Volunteer Coordinator, which made me responsible for finding and training our camp counselors. Some other positions included Operations, which focuses on the mechanics of the camp (such as where it will be held and what activities will take place) and Outreach, which connects our mission with other pupils. Our outreach workers are also imperative in making this camp happen as they help organize our nurses and psychologists; a very important part of our team. I wish that I could say that Camp Kesem is a week where these kids can escape cancer, and the fears that come with having a parent affected by cancer, but often times there is no escaping that reality. Kesem is, however, a way for the children to connect with those who understand them, and accept them for who they are and what they have been through. Personally, I think that is the most beautiful concept of all.
Each one of our Camp Coordinators and Counselors poured an enormous amount of passion and time into this year’s planning, and it showed. While we all worked incredibly hard, regardless of the amount of work put in, no one knew what to expect as the opening date for Camp Kesem approached. We each had an idea of what was to come, but we did not know what our kids were going to be like. Who knew whether they would get along, or if they were going to have fun? Once we finally arrived, though, we experienced and learned much more than we had ever anticipated. The names and background stories that we had previously known only in print now had faces, and camp names, and laughs.
Camp Kesem was real; the kids were real, and the magic became very real. Such a camp exists because what most people don’t realize is that while their parents are fighting cancer; these children are fighting their own battles. These battles include fear, confusion and anger; on top of whatever they already may be dealing with in their schools and at home. What is so amazing about Camp Kesem is that it brings together all of these kids who, for once, feel understood and normal. They understand very well why their peer is confused, sad, and sometimes angry:
“What is cancer? Why does my mom have to have cancer? If I had McDonalds before, am I going to get cancer?”
These are all questions that my co-counselors and I had difficulty trying to answer. One thing we were taught, though, is to not be hesitant in letting them know that we didn’t have all the answers; no one does. We wish we did.
Something that set Camp Kesem apart from other camps was the feeling of empowerment – empowerment being a place of non-judgment where people could share their stories. During the middle of the week, we held an Empowerment Ceremony. Here, campers and counselors alike formed into a big circle, facing out with their eyes closed. The rest of the campers, were inside the circle. As various statements were read, such as who makes you laugh, who do you trust, campers would tap the back of the person that the statement applied to. At this ceremony, campers were able to share why cancer hurts individual and families and how Kesem and the family with Kesem was helping them cope. As a way to feel even more connected after the activity, we all turned around and looked at one another, we also used yarn, spreading it around the circle giving each person a spot to hold the yarn. We were connected together, we were family.
One night after a long day of working, leading, and taking care of our campers, I was with a group of counselors as we laid underneath the stars of Camp Wawona in Yosemite, and shared the stories of the children we had in our yurts. Along with the stories came laughter, and acknowledgement that this place truly was something special. This place, Kesem, is a place where everyone feels safe. The campers feel understood and, for the first time in a long time, they get to feel like kids.
I learned that listening and attempting to understand can be the best thing to do. I knew these kids for a week, and my campers ranged from ages five to nine. I have been on this earth for 21 years, yet I learned more about myself and the world through these kids than I ever could have imagined. I understand that there is hurt in the world and I understand that cancer sucks and affects people both indirectly and directly. Cancer changes people. That said, I also learned that service changes people. Throughout my time of service with Camp Kesem, I saw first-hand what it means to be strong, what it truly means to be scared, and most importantly, what it means to be a kid. Kesem helped me remember why I love to serve. I serve at Kesem because I think that every kid needs, and deserves, to be a kid. I was able to help children get through a parent’s cancer. I was able to remind my campers what it felt like to be a kid- and that is magic. The kids at Camp Kesem are the strongest people I know. They are the reason I Kesem, and they are the reason that I continue to serve.
Why do you continue to serve? What does magic mean to you? What have you learned through service?