This August, a group of 20 students will host the third annual Camp Kesem Princeton, a week-long summer camp supporting children in the greater Princeton community whose parents are battling cancer.

The camp aims to create a network of support for children who have struggled or are struggling through their parents’ cancer treatment.

“Kesem is the Hebrew word for magic, and that is exactly the purpose of Camp Kesem,” explained co-director Mikaela Bankston ’18. “We are able to bring together a group of kids all coping with the same difficult circumstances and create an environment where they feel safe to express their hopes and fears with peers. Magically, this happens in a space that allows them to embrace the freedom of being kids."

This year’s camp will take place at Camp Johnsonburg in Johnsonburg, N.J., accommodating children ages six through 15. According to operations coordinator Jack Finlay ’18, previous years’ camps were held at Princeton Blairstown Center, but an expansion was needed to accommodate the camp’s growing number of participants this year.

“I believe we currently have 43 campers signed up, which is a big increase from 16 our first year,” Finlay said.

Preparation for camp began back in September 2016. Although the program takes place during the summer, planning and diligent advance work is necessary early on to successfully carry out the entirely student-run operation.

“We do everything from recruiting counselors, nurses, and a mental health professional, to planning every day of camp down to the minute and raising the funds necessary in order to make camp free. Running a summer camp, unlike the name suggests, is a year-round task,” said Bankston.

Co-director Stephen Chen ’19 agreed, noting that each member has a fundraising goal of $500, which sends a child to camp for free, in addition to fulfilling training responsibilities over the course of the year.

The fundraising experience itself is reflective of not only the diligence, but also the enthusiasm that students invest in making Camp Kesem a reality.

“We’ve seen some really creative stuff — one counselor [Chen] wore a tiger onesie to class after he raised his goal on Giving Tuesday [a day in spring on which all volunteers focused their fundraising efforts],” recalled administrator and outreach coordinator Ruby Guo ’19.

Aside from individual fundraising, board members work to secure grants from local foundations and events, such as the Wawa Foundation.

“This year, Stad’s Crabfest chose Camp Kesem Princeton to receive proceeds from their annual crabfest, with a mission to ‘enhance the quality of life of those affected by cancer,’” Chen said.

Running the camp also comes with its own responsibilities. Campers and counselors swim in the lake, rock climb, tie-dye, build bonfires, sing camp songs, and engage in cabin chats every night before bedtime to talk about anything on their minds in a small-group setting. It's a lot like any other, more traditional, camp. The Empowerment Ceremony, the only time during the week that cancer is explicitly brought up, sets Camp Kesem apart from the average summer camp experience.

For many participants and counselors alike, this ceremony is one of the most powerful moments.

“We all come together and share experiences of both tragedy and strength. It undoubtedly makes your eyes water, but what is incredible is that afterward, for the rest of camp, all of the campers suddenly seem so much closer, like they have known each other for months,” Finlay explained.

This year Finlay will be the moderator of the weighty conversation, encouraging campers to share their experiences and keeping the focus on empowerment.

Camp Kesem Princeton is part of a national community dedicated to bringing fun-filled activities to and fostering community among children whose parents have cancer. The largest organization in the nation dedicated to this population of individuals, Camp Kesem has focused on putting on summer camps since 2000, when founder Iris Rave and a group of student leaders at Stanford University recognized the largely overlooked population of children affected indirectly by cancer. Since then, Camp Kesem has expanded to over 80 chapters across 38 states.

According to the organization’s website, the first summer session, held in June 2001 at Stanford, enrolled just 37 campers. The program has spread rapidly since. According to its Annual Web Report, over 6000 children attended Camp Kesem in 2016 alone. The organization currently provides training, support, and leadership opportunities to more than 3,000 college students across the nation who volunteer during the year to make their own community chapters possible.

The Princeton chapter was founded in March 2014 by Norman Greenberg ’17 and Sam Maron ’17. Although the pair was unable to work with the University initially, after 18 months of planning and recruitment, they successfully ran Princeton’s first Camp Kesem with 10 board members and eight counselors. Camp Kesem is now part of the University through the Pace Center.

One of Greenberg’s fondest memories of this first camp experience was when a group of older campers coached younger ones in an athletic activity.

“We were initially worried that the age groups would be a problem — we had 16 kids from ages six to 14. But one day we had a day that wasn’t that structured and the older kids basically coached the younger kids. They didn’t even know each other and just the nature of the environment got them to all have a game together,” Greenberg recounted.

“It was really nice to see that they were taking responsibility, taking on the parental role, and actually forming friendships throughout the week,” he added.

Greenberg’s motivation for co-founding the organization was built upon his experiences as a child and upon understanding the importance of an organization committed to supporting the children of cancer patients.

“The major drive for me was that I had some of my own experiences with cancer in my family. I always thought how great it would’ve been for me as a child to have some sort of support group,” he said.

Camp Kesem’s message of empowerment, bonding campers and counselors together to develop a strong network of support throughout and beyond parents’ illnesses, similarly attracted several members on the current board to its mission.

“I am a child with a parent affected by cancer and when I discovered Camp Kesem the fall of my freshman year, I knew that I had found my home,” said Bankston, explaining that Camp Kesem was therapeutic for her. “Although I never had the opportunity to attend Camp Kesem as a child, there is something so special about creating that opportunity for other children."

Finlay, who lost his father to cancer, saw Camp Kesem as “an opportunity to help other kids like me, to relate and share experiences, attempting to counter the feelings of isolation and helplessness that commonly occur when a family member has cancer.”

“A little bit of perspective can actually really help people who are going through tough times,” said Greenberg, whose experience co-founding and running Camp Kesem Princeton has continued to positively impact his life.

“Personally, I think that being part of a group of people so dedicated to an idea that didn’t even exist originally, without knowing if it would succeed or not,” Greenberg explained, “that in itself has been pretty inspirational for me.”

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