Camp guides children through and beyond parent's cancer
Grishma Rimal | 7/13/2017, 6 a.m.
Upon entering Camp Kesem, one can hear nothing but quirky names like Princess Peach, Cyclone, Maleficent or Cookie Dough. In fact, everyone there – campers and counselors – goes by a peculiar name.
This is simply one of many tactics used by camp organizers to get participants to feel at ease and be themselves while they learn to tackle a rather tragic situation — having a parent with cancer.
Camp Kesem is a national program that aims to provide comfort and support to children whose parents suffer from cancer and to empower them by developing a sense of camaraderie and community through free recreational camps.
The University of Georgia in Athens began its own chapter of Kesem in 2011 and has since hosted hundreds of campers from ages 6 through 16. It also runs a counselor in training program for 17- and 18-year-olds.
UGA brought Camp Kesem to Camp Westminster in Conyers for the second year in a row this summer. Nearly 165 campers and 80 volunteers from all across Georgia and parts of South Carolina attended the program over the course of two week-long camp sessions.
"The first session, we had a lot of new campers," said Meagan Chong, a graduate student at UGA and public relations co-coordinator for Camp Kesem. "And those are sort of my favorite campers to watch because I think it's really special to see them grow from shy kids to really integrate themselves and become a part of the magic of Camp Kesem."
Campers are sorted into age-based groups and participate in a variety of activities such as arts and crafts projects, zip-lining, canoeing, wakeboarding, archery, etc. as well as empowerment programs to share their personal experiences with others who experience similar struggles.
Fifteen-year-old Luis Valez of Newnan, who returned to the camp for the second year, described it as "one of the best weeks" of his life.
"No one is really judging you. You can do whatever, be yourself," he said. "It was just a really good atmosphere. Everybody cares about you, and it's been great coming back. I've been counting down the days. It's like coming home to a huge family."
For 14-year-old Jalen Young of College Park, this year's camp was his first and an opportunity to try new sports.
"There are a lot of things here that I've never done before," Young said, listing canoeing and wakeboarding as new adventures he has come to love.
"The people here, they are so happy and make you feel so welcomed," he added.
Sam Hepburn, a UGA graduate and third-year counselor, said the camp helps the volunteers as much as it does the children.
"It's cool to be a part of something where not only you get to help these kids who really need it, but it actually helps everyone here," he said. "It's a very therapeutic place, full of very uplifting moments.
"For these kids, especially, it's so important because not only are they dealing with this horrible thing called cancer in their lives, they are also normal kids with typical problems at schools."
In an effort to maintain continuous rapport with the children, counselors organize reunions and grief-support programs around the year. Students at UGA also meet regularly for event planning, fundraisers and volunteer recruitment.
Cassidy Chakroun, a rising junior at UGA and Camp Kesem public relations co-coordinator, said she joined the organization on seeing a video about the camp that inspired her.
"So just watching them have fun and talk about their experiences made me want to be a part of it," she said. "It felt like I'm almost missing out."
Those wishing to not miss out on next year's Camp Kesem can visit campkesem.org/uga for information on the program, registration, and ways to get involved.