FEB. 25, 2013

Camp offers fun and support for children during a hard time


Courtesy of Camp Kesem description of photo

Teams of campers and counselors show their spirit. For 12 years, Stanford undergraduate students have volunteered at the camp in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

For the past 12 years, Stanford undergraduate students have volunteered their time and energy to help create the quintessential childhood experience — summer camp — for kids whose childhoods are anything but typical.

The students are the organizers, fundraisers and counselors for Camp Kesem, a weeklong, sleep-away camp provided for free to the children of parents with cancer.

Camp Kesem (kesem means "magic" in Hebrew) is for boys and girls ages 6 to 16 with a parent who is either undergoing cancer treatment or has died of cancer, or whose disease is in remission. The camp offers a safe and supportive place where kids can connect and have fun with others who understand their situation.

Like at any camp, there are games, songs, nature hikes and s'mores. But Camp Kesem also includes structured and unstructured times when campers can share how they have experienced their parents' cancer. There is a ceremony, called "Roots," in which the entire camp celebrates their shared connection, and there are nightly "Cabin Chats" where campers can discuss their circumstances in a more intimate setting.

Pat Waters description of photo

Beckie Yanovsky and Julie Koenig are counselors at the camp.

Of course, not everyone is comfortable sharing difficult issues with a group, and the camp is designed to encourage individual connections. Camp Kesem's leaders recruit and train a large cadre of counselors — at least one for every two campers — to ensure that campers always have someone to talk to, or just be with.

"When a parent is sick, children often don't get as much attention at home," said Heather Paul, the director and sole employee of Camp Kesem at Stanford. "We want to make sure their week of camp is all about them."

Counselors leave their laptops at home, power down their cell phones and pour all their energy into creating an unforgettable experience for the campers. It doesn't hurt that the campsite in the Santa Cruz Mountains gets poor cell reception.

"I love that about camp," said third-year counselor Beckie Yanovsky. "I don't check my phone; I'm just focused on the kids."

Yanovsky is a biology major and undergraduate researcher studying pancreatic nueroendocrine cancer in the lab of Irv Weissman, MD, a professor of pathology. And like a number of counselors, she intends to be a doctor.

None of that matters at Camp Kesem, however, where she is known only by her camp name: Luna. (All counselors choose their own nicknames, which are used exclusively at camp.)

Courtesy of Camp Kesem description of photo

Camp director Heather Paul (back row, left) and her team of Stanford student coordinators.

Yanovsky is a senior, so this is her last year as a counselor. While excited to see the returning campers, she is sad to graduate from the program that means so much to her. She credits her experiences with campers for her decision to pursue pediatric medicine, as well as research in the field.

"Through Camp Kesem, I realized that I want to have a direct impact on kids," said Yanovsky. "It helped me find a bridge between my intellectual interest in cancer and my desire to be emotionally invested in people."

Camp Kesem was founded in 2000 as secular social action project of Hillel at Stanford, the campus Jewish community center. Hillel staff member Iris Rave and a group of students identified children of cancer patients as an underserved population, and thought a sleep-away camp might offer a fun and healing respite from difficult family situations.

In June 2001, Camp Kesem hosted its first 35 campers. Forty-seven attended the following year, inspiring Rave to establish Camp Kesem National to foster programs across the country. There are now 37 active chapters in 22 states, including five in California. Over 2,100 children attended the camps in 2012.

Stanford's chapter has also grown: 131 campers and 75 counselors participated last year.
Paul, the camp director, works year-round with a team of 10 lead counselors, or "coordinators," who are each responsible for key aspects of the program, like community relations and fundraising. Coordinators typically spend 10 to 15 hours per week on camp-related activities, including recruiting, interviewing and training new counselors to replace those who have graduated or moved on.

Thuy Nguyen description of photo

A happy camper. Camp Kesem serves boys and girls ages 6 to 16.

Paul, whose camp name is Autumn, has led the program for three years and matches her student counselors in energy and enthusiasm. She stresses that Camp Kesem is a camp first, where fun, friendship and positive memories are the goals. But it is also a place where campers can express grief or anger, confident that they will be embraced with compassion and understanding.

Paul and the coordinators support campers throughout the year with birthday cards, care packages and in-person visits. Groups of counselors regularly attend campers' sporting events, graduations and even parents' memorial services.

"The community is the magic of Camp Kesem," said Paul. "It is the reason our campers look forward all year long to one week of camp."

That appears to be true of the counselors, as well. They light up when speaking about the camp, emphasizing the joy they get from engaging with the campers, as well as the examples of courage in the face of hardship.

"My mom passed away from breast cancer when I was 9 years old, and my twin brother and I did not like to talk about it," said four-year counselor Julie Koenig. "Camp Kesem taught me how to talk about my own experience with cancer."

Koenig, a senior whose camp name is Squish, became a counselor after seeing a flier posted in her freshman dorm. She took on more responsibility each year at the camp, and is now co-chair of the coordinator team, the highest volunteer position.

"I was told my freshman year that Camp Kesem gives to you what you give to it," said Koenig. "I have found that to be true."

Koenig is a biology major and studies leukemia-associated gene mutations in the lab of Ravi Majeti, MD, PhD, assistant professor of hematology. She came to Stanford with a passion for science and a focus on cancer due to her family's experience. Camp Kesem has strengthened her desire to help people with cancer. She plans to attend medical school and ultimately conduct cancer research relevant to her clinical work.

For more information about Camp Kesem at Stanford, visit http://campkesem.org/stanford.

Michael Claeys is senior communications manager at the Stanford Cancer Institute.

Stanford Medicine integrates research, medical education and patient care at its three institutions - Stanford University School of Medicine, Stanford Hospital & Clinics and Lucile Packard Children's Hospital Stanford. For more information, please visit the Office of Communication & Public Affairs site at http://mednews.stanford.edu/.

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