Discouraged, frightened, alone. These feelings are an everyday reality for children whose parents have cancer. Sometimes what they need most is a friend who understands. Camp Kesem aims to be that friend. Founded in 2000, the national organization includes 86 chapters of student-run summer camps across the U.S. that support children facing parental diagnosis and parental loss due to cancer. It provides a one-week camp experience and a year-round support network of peers fighting the same battle. Syracuse University’s chapter was founded in 2012.
This year, 19 campers experienced Camp Kesem at Syracuse University, thanks to the efforts of approximately 25 student volunteers, including child and family studies major Anna Olson ’19.
“I wholeheartedly understand how it feels to have a family member undergoing treatment,” says Olson. Her mother is a breast cancer survivor, diagnosed when Olson was sixteen. This trying experience is what motivated Olson to pursue a career as a child life specialist. “I chose this path in life to help families like mine and children like me to deal with the hardships of having a sick family member or being sick themselves,” she explains.
As co-directors of Camp Kesem at Syracuse University, Olson and Abigail Hamilton ‘19, marketing and political science dual major, oversee an executive board of student volunteers. “Anna and her student team organize this week-long summer camp, which includes obtaining medical professionals, training counselors, obtaining donations, and camper recruitment,” said Camp Kesem at Syracuse University faculty advisor Colleen Cameron, CCLS, M.Ed., a professor of practice in Falk College’s Department of Human Development and Family Science. “It is quite an accomplishment—Anna took this task on as a freshman.”
Together, Olson and her team create an incredible week for the campers, including messy games, a major food fight and paint war, “a Camp Kesem staple,” Olson says. “It is definitely the most fun part of camp.” Cancer can make a child grow up fast, she says, but at camp, they get to just be kids, surrounded by others who fully understand the struggles they are going through.
Olson explains that her responsibilities as co-director have taught her how to work with different personalities, communicate effectively and sensitively, and also ensure that every voice in the group is heard. “Most importantly, co-directing has made me even more dedicated to my major and what I am headed towards in the future,” she says.
“At the end of the day,” she adds, “I just look at my fellow classmates that I work with, who I now consider my family; and I look at pictures of the smiling faces on all our beautiful and inspiring campers, and I just feel so incredibly blessed and grateful to be a part of this organization.”
Camp Kesem is one of the 2017 Orange Circle Award recipients, which recognize exceptional philanthropic work through financial contribution or volunteerism. Camp Kesem is currently recruiting Syracuse University student volunteers for next year’s camp. Interested students may visit campkesem.org for more information on how to get involved.