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Children of cancer patients gain strength from ASU students

March 30, 2015

Arizona State University pyschology junior Elizabeth Perry walked into the cabin room to find one of her campers crying. The girl’s mother had passed away earlier that year, and the camper wanted to attend Camp Kesem, a camp for children of cancer patients.

Perry listened to the girl’s sobs and asked if she wanted to talk with some of the other campers in her unit. The two talked with a boy who shared his experience of losing his dad and how he’s lived through it.

“They talked about the memories of their loved ones,” said Perry, coordinator for the camp’s largest fundraiser event, Make the Magic. “It was such a wonderful moment. I know Camp Kesem brought them together for that shared experience.”

College students, several of whom are in ASU's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, run the camp’s Arizona chapter.

The weeklong summer camp, held at Camp Tontozona in Payson, Arizona, is designed to give children ages 6 to 16 an escape from the pressures at home through a variety of camp activities, such as arts and crafts, hiking and archery. Kesem is the Hebrew word for “magic,” Perry said. While the camp doesn’t have any religious affiliations, Perry said it was chosen because Camp Kesem is about creating a magical experience throughout the week.

“[The kids] are able to run and play and be careless,” Perry said. “That’s the biggest impact. They get to be kids again.”

A couple of the counselors know first hand what it’s like to lose a loved one to cancer. Eddie Mehta, a history and political science senior and Alyssa Ojeda, a psychology sophomore, had relatives pass away from cancer when they were younger. Both said they see Camp Kesem as a way to give back to the cancer community.

“It’s a great feeling being able to relate [to the kids] and let them know they’re not alone,” Ojeda said, one of the outreach coordinators.

One way to help campers forget about their current situation is to have them and counselors go by nicknames during the trip, Mehta said.

“They can choose a name and be liberated from the troubles at home because he’s not Matt anymore,” Mehta said, who goes by “Scooby” during the trip.

This year Camp Kesem expanded to two one-week camp experiences because there was a long waiting list for campers, Perry said. She said normally 100 campers want to attend, but this year they received 160 applications. The number of kids that can come will depend on how much money they raise.

Mehta, who is also the finance coordinator for the trip, said he and his team need to raise $40,000 to meet their goal of $100,000 for campers to come free of charge. The club holds different individual and group fundraisers, like Make the Magic, their annual silent auction.

Counselors go through a training in April before the camp. Ojeda said they learn how to respond to situations if a camper needs help emotionally. The counselors also learn what language to use, like avoiding saying “cancer” as to not bring it back to the child’s memories.

If a child is struggling and needs to talk, there are mental health professionals at the campsite. However, Meriam Avades, a biochemistry sophomore, said the student counselors don’t talk about cancer until a night in the week called Empowerment Night. 

Avades, who is the fundraising events coordinator, said the main event for the night changes each year, but last year’s featured two camp counselors who shared their Camp Kesem experience as they grew up with their parents battling cancer. Campers then split into their groups and, if they feel comfortable, they share how they’re doing with their parents’ cancer or how Camp Kesem has helped them.

“It’s awesome because the kids do more of the encouraging and supporting than the counselors because they know what they’re going through or what the camper needs to hear,” Avades said. “We’re there to facilitate and be
there for them, but a lot of it is led by the campers.”

Perry said any students can get involved by going to club meetings. All members can help with different fundraising and outreach events, but they must submit an application to be a camp counselor.

Perry said members have opportunities to learn different skills on how to operate a nonprofit. Throughout her time as a member, she’s learned networking, selling and event-planning skills.

As for the seniors on the executive board, Mehta and Ojeda plan on staying involved with the Camp Kesem alumni group or advisory board. One of the jobs Mehta applied for is at the national level for Camp Kesem.

Perry said the camp counselors who are in college keep in contact with the campers throughout the year. They’ll send birthday cards or attend special events, like a camper’s violin recital. Perry said the campers are able to leave knowing they have a support system.

“They know they’re not alone, and they think, ‘I can make it through this and all these kids are going through it with me,’” Perry said. “We’re a family to lean on even if their family is falling apart. We give them a place where they can feel at home.”

Written by Alicia Canales

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