Over five million children in the United States are impacted by a parent's cancer. Between hospital stays, checkups, and treatment, sometimes these youngest members of the family can be unintentionally overlooked. But now, one national summer camp with local chapter is looking to change that. Camp Kesem at Michigan State University has vowed to support children through and beyond their parent’s cancer.
"Camp Kesem is my family,” said Erin McCollum, a 12-year-old camper who has been coming to Camp Kesem for 7 years. “It is magic and it’s where I love to be every single year."
Camp Kesem is a free week-long summer camp specifically for kids whose parents have or had cancer -- providing them a community of children with similar experiences... Like Zack Krenzer, who has been coming to camp since he was 6-years-old, when his mom was diagnosed with breast cancer.
"It's somewhere I can go and see other people and laugh, and just enjoy other people's company because I know they've gone through stuff that I have,” said Krenzer, now in his ninth year of camp.
“It's just so cool to know there's other people in the world like me, and I don't have to be alone."
The camp is run entirely by college students from Michigan State University. All of whom volunteer their time throughout the year planning, and fundraising the thousands of dollars it takes to put on two free weeks of camp -- before then giving up a week or two of their own summer to be leaders. For many of the counselors, they see themselves in the campers they serve.
"I had lost my mom to cancer when I was eleven, and I heard about Kesem and was just like, 'that is the most amazing idea I have ever heard,'” said Gabrielle O’Connell, a coordinator and counselor at Camp Kesem MSU. “I hadn't had this opportunity when I was younger and going through these experiences, so I figured with what I had been through, I could hopefully be able to help these campers. It's been so amazing and these campers have helped me more than I could ever imagine."
Though there are many opportunities for kids to talk about their emotions and experiences, Camp Kesem prides itself on mostly being a time for these kids to have fun. It's one week without the pressures or problems they may face at home.
"Here at Camp Kesem, we give all the campers just a chance to really enjoy themselves in the summer, and take their mind away from whatever may be going on at home,” said Peter Butkovich, co-director for Camp Kesem MSU. “One of the nights we actually have at Camp Kesem is called ‘Empowerment,’ and that's where we give the children the opportunity to speak about how cancer's affected their lives if they choose. It's one of the most beautiful things I've ever been a part of. Here at camp we can then go from something like ‘Empowerment,’ to swinging on a rope, and throwing counselors in a lake. The list goes on and on for ridiculous things that happen here."
Though many kids and counselors do come with apprehensions on day one, by the last day of camp there is a profound positive change from the person they were when the week began.
"It impacted my life greatly, because now I have everyone here that supports me and loves me, and I can just give everyone big hugs and stuff. Camp Kesem is stronger than cancer," said McCollum.
"It really opened my eyes that no matter where people come from, you never know what people might be going through, or what kind of struggles everyone has,” said Butkovich. “At the end of the day here at Camp Kesem we all come together as a family.”