Spreading Kesem

University students volunteer to help families affected by cancer

Whether it’s falling off the monkey bars at recess or desperately scrambling to find a homecoming date, growing up can be tough. But for kids whose parents have or had cancer, the process is that much more difficult. That’s where Camp Kesem steps in.

Camp Kesem, founded in 2000 by Stanford University’s chapter of Hillel — the largest international Jewish campus organization — is an entirely student-run group with partnerships at 54 universities nationwide. Kesem, which means “magic” in Hebrew, works to ease the burden for families afflicted by cancer, even if just for a week. Each chapter holds a weeklong camp each summer, catering to kids aged 6 to 16.

The University’s Kesem chapter relies almost exclusively on student volunteers to work as counselors and fundraisers. It aims to give campers a place to have fun, where they can focus on being kids.

“Most of the activities at Camp Kesem are very normal camp activities,” fourth-year College student and camp co-director Nikki Tracy said. “We have slip ‘n slides, paint wars [and] s’mores.”

Still, Camp Kesem is special in that it gives campers a chance to speak about why they are there and vocalize the difficulties they’ve faced with their parents’ illness in a special program at the end of the week.

Fourth-year College student Alison Celello, camp co-director, finds the tradition to be incredibly important.

“[Some of the stories are] more light-hearted, but still heartfelt, [while some are] very emotional,” she said. “It’s just a really great way to bring together the older and younger campers.”

Celello, known as “Pigtails” at camp, described how one camper, in particular, felt so touched by his experience he decided to spread the magic of Kesem himself.

“A mother on the board was telling me her son would make all of his friends sit and watch a 15-minute slideshow [with photos from camp] when they were having playdates, showing them people…and explaining what they were doing,” she said. “He helped his mom pass out brochures at the hospital, too. It was so nice to see what an impact camp made on him.”

To keep the organization running, Camp Kesem applies for grants from organizations such as the Charlottesville Community Foundation, and also hosts an annual cocktail party in the spring with a silent auction and a cappella performances. This year, the event will take place Saturday, March 29 at Paramount Theatre on the Downtown Mall. Members of the chapter would like to raise $60,000 before camp begins in August.

The chapter will also soon begin taking applications from students interested in becoming counselors.

Published January 20, 2014 in Life

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