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Undergrads aid children with cancer ties

January 22, 2008

There’s magic afoot at ASU with the help of undergraduates sporting the unlikely monikers of “Bubbles,” “Bam Bam,” “Tank,” “Bacon,” “Shazam” and “Guppy.”

Despite their playful nicknames – or, perhaps, because of them – these six students, along with three others, are serious players. They are the student coordinators and founders of the ASU branch of Camp Kesem, an entrepreneurial organization designed to bring positives into the lives of young children whose parents have or have had cancer.

The team, led by co-chairs Nicholas Pokrajac (a.k.a. “Chuckles”), a biology major, and Angela Rosselli (a.k.a. “Squirrelz”), a kinesiology major, aims to raise $35,000 to take 40 children between ages 6-13 to YMCA’s Sky-Y in Prescott this year – and out from under the shadow, if only for a brief time, of the “Big C.”

ASU’s Camp Kesem is one of 21 branches of a national nonprofit organization founded in 2001 at Stanford University. The camps focus on partnering support for children with a venue that “allows college students to channel their passion to make a difference and foster leadership skills for long-term impact.”

“Kesem” is a Hebrew word meaning “magic; the ability to change a life; an agent of growth.”

In starting this organization from the ground up, Pokrajac and his team also have been transformed.

“Although I have been in leadership positions before, I don’t think I realized the magnitude of work involved with setting up this demanding of an organization,” he says. “We had some pretty lofty goals and wanted to be one of the best new programs within Camp Kesem. The entire year was almost like a crash course in management and leadership.”

Students develop fundraisers, advertising, produce public relations materials (newsletters, press releases and fliers) and recruit volunteers, in addition to screening applicants for camp, conducting rigorous training as camp counselors, working with children and contacting potential donors.

“You deal with difficult decisions involving large amounts of money that everyone works hard for,” Pokrajac says. “You have to learn to trust the team that you put together and your partner to accomplish their goals. The national organization stresses co-leadership roles, which definitely help us divide responsibilities. It was frustrating at times if certain teams didn’t accomplish their goals, but that is what the student-oriented aspect of the program is about: learning to accept mistakes and overcoming obstacles.”

Camp Kesem largely depends on private donations for funding. While the ASU undergraduate student government helped out in 2007, other creative approaches had to be developed by the students – for example, the “Penny Wars.”

Pokrajac says the group raised more than $1,500 in donations with the help of a middle school, Akimel A-Al, by pitting teams and classrooms against one another to raise the most pennies. This year, Camp Kesem student coordinators hope to take this campaign to more schools throughout the Valley.

Pokrajac says they have received a strong response from the community. Hospitals and cancer support centers have helped by distributing information or advertising to the cancer community. The faculty, staff and students in ASU’s School of Life Sciences also got involved in November, donating $675, plus a menagerie of stuffed animals, via a Thanksgiving pumpkin pie contest and potluck. Camp Kesem was one of five community outreach efforts supported by the school during fall semester, which included Rebuild America, Books for Prisoners, ASU Anti-Trash Bash, and Chrysalis Shelter for women and children. Camp Kesem was by far the most popular because of the students’ obvious enthusiasm and devotion to their program.

“ASU’s Camp Kesem board and volunteers are an outstanding group which other nonprofits should model,” says Marci Welton, a practiced expert in nonprofit governance and fundraising and ASU staff member responsible for life sciences’ grant submissions. “Nonprofit management is a skill that many organizations, whose missions provide for the public good, lack. These students’ excellent training, keen leadership, capacity-building and achievements are all to be lauded. I am very proud of these students, their motivation, and abilities.”

Welton and Philip Sharf, an undergraduate student adviser in the school, are on Kesem’s advisory committee.

Pokrajac, like many of the 30 volunteers in the ASU program also has personal reasons for creating this program at ASU.

“I felt that I could relate well to the kids and their situation,” he says. “I lost my father when I was 10 and, at the beginning of my undergraduate career, witnessed the loss of my grandfather – a central role model in my life – to cancer. I would have benefited from this organization when I was 10, and from that I know we play a large role in improving the lives of the children we serve.”

Another Camp Kesem counselor, Adrienne Azurdia, concurs.

“I’m doing Camp Kesem because people in my family have lost their parents to cancer, and I’ve seen what a toll it can take on someone if they don’t have a good support network in place,” she says. “Besides, who wouldn’t want to give a kid every chance at having a normal childhood – or as close as they can?”

Azurdia is an ASU biology major and member of Alpha Epsilon Delta, a pre-health honor society. Alpha Epsilon Delta will sponsor a silent auction for Camp Kesem in the spring.

“Close as they can” means that for one week, youths attend a summer camp designed to promote good times, which provides company with other children – and even counselors – facing similar life challenges with cancer. The week includes full support for transportation, food, lodging and entertainment, such as fashion shows, arts and crafts, and a bevy of sports.

ASU’s camp follows the required 2-to-1 camper-to-counselor ratio. In addition, Camp Kesem’s savvy and engaged student camp counselors are assisted by a nurse and social worker who lead children in journaling and “cabin chats,” as well as YMCA professionals. This next year will add extra delights, by including a magician and an animal handler-trainer from the Prescott Zoo.

What can one week at camp do? Plenty, according to Jack “Kong” Jeng.

“Being part of Camp Kesem gave me an opportunity to give back to the community, to work with great kids and develop my leadership skills – and have fun,” he says.

Jeng is an electrical engineering undergraduate intending to pursue medical school.

“My favorite part of camp was seeing the kids having fun, climbing the rock well, shooting arrows at the archery range and playing in the pool,” he says.

Adds Pokrajac: “Dealing with something as traumatic and life-changing as cancer is difficult enough for a parent, let alone their children.

Witnessing the amount of pain it causes to their family is scary and alienating, especially when classmates or friends do not understand. I think one of the most beneficial aspects of the camp addresses that issue. We immerse the kids in a positive environment – and, what’s more, everyone shares the same connection. It not only lets them have fun, it builds relationships that increase confidence and self-esteem.”

And Pokrajac also makes them laugh. He isn’t called “Chuckles” for nothing.

For more information about Camp Kesem, to help the camp reach its 2008 goal, or to receive the monthly newsletter, send an e-mail to or visit the Web site