Camp supports children through and beyond their parent’s journey with cancer
Each year, around 60 local kids between ages 6 and 18 rediscover their childhood at a weeklong camp organized by UCSB students.
Kesem is a nationwide nonprofit with chapters all over the country’s colleges. The chapters operate free summer camps to help many of the more than 5 million children nationally who have been impacted by a parent’s cancer.
The program offers a community of kids with similar experiences and a safe, welcoming environment that simply allows kids to be kids.
UCSB’s Camp Kesem chapter serves around 60 kids a year, with some out-of-state families as well. Currently there are between 40 and 50 chapter members and 15 to 20 counselors, all consisting of UCSB students.
Due to the pandemic, the camp was unable to occur in person in 2020, but camp directors knew the importance of making contact with the kids, especially during the pandemic, so they held a virtual camp in July 2020.
Only 35 of the usual 60 kids attended Kesem at Home. But Kesem volunteers and directors managed to ship Kesem packages, which included a summerlong activity book, to each kid and held virtual tours of the Santa Barbara Zoo and optional virtual activities such as yoga.
Lauren “Mushu” Rivas is a co-director of the camp and a third-year student at UCSB. (At Camp Kesem, counselors and campers all choose their own nicknames and use those throughout the camp instead of their real names to foster individuality and self-expression.)
“Usually, during normal in-person camp, we spend the entire week together,” Ms. Rivas told the News-Press. “Virtual camp looked pretty different for us because we didn’t want to fatigue the kids with Zoom, and we knew other people in the household might be needing computers.”
At the end of the day, counselors and campers would discuss the highs and lows of their days and how they felt about the virtual activities.
“We could tell that they missed camp from day one,” Ms. Rivas said. “It was a little bit awkward for them at first, as it was for all of us, because we weren’t sure how we were all going to connect the way we do at in-person camp on an entirely virtual platform.”
A typical day at in-person Camp Kesem may include ziplining, rock climbing, arts and crafts, sports, water activities, adventures in nature, making friendship bracelets, capture the flag, a talent show, s’mores, skits and the traditional “Cabin Chat,” where campers have an opportunity to talk about anything they’d like.
“Something really, really big that Camp Kesem provides is an escape for these kids to not necessarily get away from, but at least take their minds off, the stress and responsibility that they inherit once their family members are given that diagnosis,” Ms. Rivas said. “I don’t think we can really imagine how stressed these kids might be and how much they’re facing, considering they’re home all the time, surrounded by that sadness, and unable to escape the stresses their family is going through.”
In addition to the weeklong summer camp, Kesem members also have opportunities to reunite in the fall and the spring with Friends and Family Day, where parents and guardians can come and learn more about the camp, and the kids can see each other again. The day also features other fundraising events.
The UCSB chapter held one Friends and Family Day virtually, but other than that, all the chapter can really do is support the kids from a distance during the pandemic.
Elizabeth “Breezy” Cook is also a co-director of the Camp Kesem chapter, and she is in her senior year at UCSB. She has been involved with Kesem since 2017.
“It’s not only that these kids are stuck at home, but also that their families are some of the most vulnerable in terms of having family members that are immunocompromised, which really limits their motion or ability to do the most basic of things, whether it’s to go to the grocery store or go to a park,” Ms. Cook told the News-Press. “I can’t imagine how much fear is already compounded in a pandemic, on top of the fear and the grief of having a parent who is going through their cancer journey.
“That’s really something we try to emphasize through these Friends and Family Days is your community is not just the counselors at UCSB — your community are these kids you meet at Camp Kesem. That community has been a lifeline for some of these kids, just to know they have friends going through the same thing they’re going through. They even start group chats with each other.”
Kesem at Home still provided the magic of in-person Camp Kesem, and the UCSB students hope to raise more money to hold additional events for the kids, especially as more businesses reopen.
“It’s this virtual programming organized by student volunteers that’s completely free for families,” Ms. Cook said. “We had a talent show over Zoom, and you have these kids who had been pretty quiet throughout the little breakout rooms or activities who just whip out beautiful piano performances.
“It’s those cute instances of making these kids feel like kids even in a virtual environment, especially in their homes where they’re dealing with such intense emotions.”
She said that even with Kesem at Home, parents wrote to the counselors saying that it took a lot of pressure off them that week, and the kids always had something to talk about at dinner or something to be excited about in the morning.
While the identities of the families are being withheld for confidentiality reasons, one parent wrote the UCSB Camp Kesem counselors saying, “We talk a lot at home about how we can build each other up and not tear each other down, which is hard with siblings sometimes! But I am forever grateful for the example you set in this way for my kids. Hearing Mom and Dad say it is not as effective as watching their cool counselors do it.”
Another message from a parent said, “Thank you for doing these camps. My cancer diagnosis was devastating for my girls, and this camp greatly helped them.”
Another: “I know it might not be obvious but (my child) needs and loves Camp Kesem so much. The joy that she had when the Camp Kesem package came yesterday was joy I had not seen from her in a LONG time.”