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Camp experience helps children deal with family illness


December 05, 2008

Swimming, archery, cooking over an open fire, and sleeping out under the stars at camp are a part of growing up for many children. But for some, these childhood experiences are out of reach because of a serious family illness.

Through efforts of a group of Arizona State University students, Arizona children whose parents have or had cancer are able to experience a week of fun at Camp Kesem, held this year at the YMCA's Chauncey Ranch located in Mayer, Ariz.

The camp is student run and while the word “Kesem” is Hebrew for “magic,” the camping experience is available for children regardless of religion, race or nationality.

“We want to give the children a magical week,” says Nicholas Pokrajac, a senior biology major focusing on pre-health in ASU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Pokrajac founded the ASU chapter in 2006 with friends under the direction and guidance of a group of advisors from other universities and the local community. Camp Kesem was first started at Stanford University in 2000 and now includes more than 20 campuses around the country.

“I learned about the program from a friend at Northwestern University and thought it would be a good way to make an impact,” Pokrajac says.

Pokrajac knows the difficulties facing children with sick parents. “My dad died when I was young, and my cousin had cancer, so I have a personal connection.”

During its first year at ASU, Pokrajac and other club members raised about $17,000 and were able to bring 19 children age 6-13 and 15 counselors to Camp Kesem.

“Throughout the year, our students are working hard to get information out, recruit counselors, and raise funds,” says Phillip Scharf, an advisor to the organization and director of Health Professions Advising in ASU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

“Their goal is to make sure the kids won’t have to pay for anything and are 100 percent free to have fun and relax all week” Scharf says.

The activities offered by the camp include arts and crafts, drama and performing, and adventures including swimming, hiking, and sports. In addition, there is time scheduled in the middle of everyday for quiet reflection or naps. At the end of the day, the children gather together with their cabin mates to have discussions called “Cabin Chats” about their life and experiences.

The number of counselors per child in the camp is always 2-to-1, with “counselors chosen based on a variety of factors, including previous experience, involvement with the organization, and most importantly, personality,” says Pokrajac.

“We want people who enjoy working with kids and will make camp fun and enjoyable,” he says.

The second year, the group was able to raise $25,000 and bring 36 children and 21 counselors to camp. The goal for this is year is to raise $40,000 in order to bring teens, as well as younger children, to camp, says Jack Jeng, a senior electrical engineering major in ASU’s Ira A. Fulton School of Engineering. Jeng is co-chair of the program and a founding member.

Camp Kesem chapters are allowed to start teen programs after two successful years with a children’s program, he says

“A lot of kids are too old for the children’s side, but want to return to camp,” says Jeng. “We’d like to let them return with a teen program, because we don’t want to turn anyone away.”

In addition to providing a wonderful week for the children, Camp Kesem has made a big impact on the counselors, many of which are officers on the board. Camp Kesem at ASU is entirely student run with a board consisting of 10 officers and 40 committee members.

Angie Rosselli, a kinesiology senior in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and one of the original officers, says that being in charge of an entirely student run enterprise has given her confidence and valuable experience.

“Everyone who has gone to camp says it changes them,” Rosselli says. “You learn organizational skills, leadership skills, and how great it is to help people. It has definitely changed me for the better.”

Jeng rethought the path his life was taking because of his experiences at Camp Kesem.

“Going to camp changed my life,” he says. “Now I want to do something in my life to help people.”


Ashley Lange, ashley.lange@asu.edu
College of Liberal Arts and Sciences