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Camp Kesem fundraiser makes magic

Aubrey Butts | Monday, February 4, 2013

Make the Magic, the inaugural fundraiser for Notre Dame’s chapter of Camp Kesem, will bring out the true meaning of the national organization’s name, student co-chair Lauren McGrath said.

“Kesem is the Hebrew word for magic, and it’s what drives the whole operation,” McGrath said. “We channel the magic and try to bring it out of our campers.”

Camp Kesem, a week-long summer camp for children whose parents have or have had cancer, is relatively unknown on campus, McGrath said, but this year’s Make the Magic event is a step toward changing that. The silent auction and dinner will be held Friday at the Inn at Saint Mary’s.

Notre Dame students can lead the camp as counselors to make a difference in the lives of these children, McGrath said. Beyond the benefits of helping children and their families during periods of uncertainty, Camp Kesem provides students with the opportunity to develop professional skills.

“A Camp Kesem Notre Dame counselor is someone who is crazy fun, great with kids and has absolutely no problem looking silly,” she said. “The mission of Camp Kesem national is two-fold, to help these kids in the community but also to give student leadership skills that they can take with them throughout their life.”

Whether they spend their volunteer time dressing up in costumes for theme days, dancing at the talent show or taking part in a giant ice cream fight, students will never regret devoting a week of their summer to Camp Kesem, McGrath said.

“You definitely come away from the experience a more enriched person,” she said. “It’s hard not to see life in a different light and appreciate everything that you have after camp. Guaranteed, it will be the best week of your summer.”

The word “kesem” expresses both the structure of camp and the effects it produces in the lives of campers and counselors, McGrath said. For example, everyone has a nickname for the duration of the camp and can be whomever he or she chooses.

“It’s a way to escape from all the hard stuff,” she said. “When a parent is diagnosed, it affects the whole family, and these kids are forced to play mom or dad, whether that’s cooking dinner or providing emotional support, and to grow up very quickly. Camp is a week when they can just be kids and be goofy again.”

The magic does not stop at the conclusion of camp, but rather extends throughout the year as a result of the sustained care and concern of the dedicated counselors, she said.

“It’s not just a week in the summer though,” McGrath said. “We have camper reunions for the families, and we create this support group within the families. We don’t want to be there just for the good parts. We want to be there for our campers throughout the year.”

While the Notre Dame chapter represents one branch of a national organization, the camp focuses on serving the needs of the local community, McGrath said. The chapter serves local children in South Bend and Mishawaka.

Further, cancer provides a common point of contact for the campers, counselors and community members or groups supporting the organization. Locally, the Kelly Cares Foundation and the Harper Cancer Research Institute are supporting organizations for Camp Kesem.

“Everybody has been affected by cancer in some way,” McGrath said. “Cancer is an absolutely terrible disease, but it’s also what brings us all together and allows us to have this week. Our counselors volunteer for individual reasons, but almost all sign up because they have also experienced the affects of cancer in their lives.”

Camp Kesem exists to serve the needs of children and their families, McGrath said, but the campers provide as much inspiration for their counselors through their courage and personal testimonies.

“You go into the week thinking, ‘I’m the counselor, and I’m here for these kids,’ and then by the end of the week, after all of the crazy games and bonding, the campers end up giving you more than you could ever give them,” McGrath said.

McGrath said planning Make the Magic, which will also feature a performance by the Notre Dame Glee Club, has been exhausting, but well worth it to see the joy on the children’s faces.

“So many people depend on us to make camp happen,” she said. “The campers light up my world though, and it makes all of the hard work completely worth it.”

Those interested in applying for a counselor position can find the application online at campkesem.org. Applications are due Friday.

Registration for “Make the Magic” can also be found on the organization’s website and will be accepted until Wednesday at midnight. The event will take place Friday from 6 to 9 p.m. at the Gillespie Conference Center, part of the Inn at Saint Mary’s.