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Camp caters to children of cancer patients

MOLLY MADDEN | Friday, January 29, 2010

When one thinks of the victims of cancer one often thinks of those who struggle daily with the disease. But cancer takes more victims than just its medical patients; for every cancer victim has a family behind them and these people, particularly children, need help as well.

A group of Notre Dame students have been making sure children who have been affected by a parent who has cancer are not forgotten and get the chance to still be kids despite the mature burden they have at home.

Camp Kesem is a national student-run sleep-away camp that takes place the first week of August for kids ages 6 to 15 whose parents have died from or are currently being treated for cancer. Although the camp is national and several colleges across the country participate, each camp is unique to a specific university. Camp Kesem Notre Dame is completely run, funded and organized by Notre Dame student volunteers.

“Our mission at Camp Kesem is two-fold,” senior Emily Stewart, the co-chair of the camp, said. “We provide an experience for kids who are dealing with the stress of cancer and it’s an awesome way for Notre Dame students to touch these kids in a very real and personal way.”

Notre Dame began participating in Camp Kesem in 2002 and since then the camp, which is free of charge, has been very popular with the 60 campers that come every summer and the student counselors alike. 

“Once you do it as a counselor you get addicted,” junior Rani Gallardo, the camp’s programming director, said. “I’ve never heard of a student just doing it once; all of counselors come back again and again.”

Volunteering as a counselor at Camp Kesem is more than directing kids in activities; counselors assume a whole new rage of responsibilities — the greatest of which is creating a relaxed and stable environment for children coming from very different home lives.

“Being a counselor is a hybrid of having fun and being a role model,” Stewart said. “Having us as role models, people who love to play and have fun, shows the campers an adult figure who represents a break in what can be a very sad life.”

Stewart said many of the campers have to take on adult roles in their homes because of their parents’ daily dealings with the effects of the disease. She described one 10-year-old camper who was responsible for doing all of her family’s laundry because her mother was constantly too sick from treatments and her father was always tending to her bedside.

“These kids have atypical childhoods,” junior Katie Dorociak, who is in charge of student support for Camp Kesem, said. “This week is a chance for them to let go of their responsibilities.”

The focus of the week is for the kids to have fun and complete activities such as sports, arts and crafts, drama and teambuilding exercises.

“Teambuilding is an important exercise because it allows the kids to know that they can trust one another as well as us,” Gallardo said.

The camp is designed so the kids don’t have to talk about cancer related issues if they don’t want to, but they know that all of their fellow campers are going through a similar situation, which provides comfort.

“A little part of the day is when the kids journal and reflect on the day’s experiences,” Dorociak said. “They can open up and share if they want to; it’s about healing and knowing that they aren’t alone.”

Gallrado believes what sets Camp Kesem apart is that it is primarily a summer camp, but it is one that is for a group of children often lost in the shuffle.

“The kids really need this,” she said. “Camp Kesem is very unique because it offers kids with these specific backgrounds to come together in this safe environment; everyone there can sympathize with one another because they all understand what one another is going through.”