I’ve never heard someone tease out a single week and identify it as the most meaningful week of their life. So this week, when not one but four people told me unanimously that working at Camp Kesem was the most special, most fulfilling week they had ever lived, I began to discover that this camp is, well — more than a camp.
Jayne Flynn ’15 waves her arms and raises her eyebrows up and down as she enthusiastically tells me about working at Kesem. “It consumes my life now and makes me happier than anything in the world,” Flynn says.
Camp Kesem was founded in 2000 at Stanford University to give kids who have a parent who either has, is in remission from or has been killed by cancer the opportunity to “just be kids,” explains Cortney Lebeda, Camp Kesem Program Director for Yale.
Over 3 million children in America have a parent who has struggled or is still struggling with cancer, and, according to Lebeda, Kesem has expanded into 63 chapters since its founding. In the past summer, over 4,000 kids attended various branches of Camp Kesem throughout the country.
Flynn initially developed an interest in Kesem after her sister worked at the Stanford branch of the camp as an undergraduate. When Flynn contacted the Camp Kesem national office her sophomore year, she was surprised to learn that two Yale seniors, Amanda Murray ’14 and Danna Moustafa ’14 had already begun applying for funding to start a Camp Kesem at Yale. By spring of 2013, Flynn, Murray, and Moustafa had gotten the organization approved, sent out applications to create a board and received a Livestrong grant to start funding. This summer, Yale hosted its first camp.
Kesem means magic in Hebrew, explains Flynn. “The whole point of the week for us is to make magic. To kind of forget your reality at home and go into this camp reality where you’re singing and dancing and laughing the whole entire time. We never explicitly say the word ‘cancer’ at camp.”
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Flynn, Murray and Moustafa, started recruiting board members and counselors in the spring of 2013. They ended up recruiting 22 counselors — whom Flynn describes as people who would never be friends with each other in Yale culture otherwise — from varsity baseball players to members of children’s theater. “We are all each other’s best friends at this point,” Flynn gushes. “The 22 of us had the best time with each other and with these 40 kids.”
In fact, there were so many applications to be counselors that some had to be turned away, and there has been even more interest expressed this year. Flynn says that she’s already had juniors and seniors coming up to her with news that they’ve heard of Kesem and want to know if there’s any way they can get involved.
But while enthusiasm has spread, some of the group’s older members started working for Kesem for personal reasons.
I sit on the lawn of cross campus with Erin Alexander ’15 and Duane Bean ’17, the public relations and marketing coordinators for Kesem at Yale. Bean and Alexander also served as counselors this summer — Alexander for 13-16 year old girls, and Bean for 6-8 year old boys. I ask if either of them has had experience with cancer in their family. There’s a moment’s pause.
“My mom has cancer,” Alexander answers, breaking the silence.
“My dad had cancer when I was 10,” says Bean.
Bean says that experience was the real reason he joined Kesem: He would have loved to have something like the camp around at that age. Bean and Alexander say that they had not even known how some of their peer’s lives had been affected by cancer until the “empowerment” ceremony, which took place on the Wednesday night of camp. Empowerment is the only time during the week where cancer is deliberately brought up — a night where campers pass around a ball of yarn, and, as it unravels, each has the opportunity to share their story.
“It was an emotionally moving experience, but it was something that I’ll take away with me — hearing all the counselors’ stories, the kids’ stories, being supported by everyone around you — it was one of the greatest feelings I’ve ever experienced,” Alexander said.
Although Alexander initially thought that the kids would be reluctant to open up, she says reckons around three quarters of them shared their stories that night.
Laura Brink ’15, co-director of the camp with Flynn, said she was surprised how much the children were able to share, despite some of them being of a young age — Kesem’s youngest campers are six years old. She describes being taken aback by one preteen boy — a kid who was always running around and cracking jokes — who showed a deeply reflective side at the ceremony as he spoke about dealing with his father’s cancer.
“This boy was 10 times more mature than I’ll ever be,” said Brink.
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Flynn stresses that the main focus of the camp is not necessarily “helping” kids but rather providing them companionship and a loving support network. Besides the Wednesday empowerment ceremony, the atmosphere resembles any other camp, with singing, dancing, laughing and games. In the mornings, campers choose between a shifting schedule of dance and drama, sports, arts and crafts, and outdoor activities. In the afternoon, there are camp-wide events like a carnival, a lake day, and slip and slide. At night, people gather for a campfire or talent show.
Each camper — and counselor — chooses a “camp name” to further facilitate the “escape from their home reality,” as Flynn describes it. Flynn’s own camp name is “Trex” — a name she received due to her brother’s comments that she runs in the fashion of a T. rex. The counselors and campers go by the imagined names throughout the week, ranging from “Spike” and “Attack” to “Airplane” and “Little Rascal.” In fact, Yale students involved with Camp Kesem use the camp names throughout the year — when I told Flynn that I was interviewing Alexander and Bean later in the day, she asked me if I meant to say Cedar and Jade.
Brink says that Yale’s Camp Kesem has no problem finding counselors or campers — there were 10 kids on the wait-list this past summer who weren’t able to attend — the real problem is finding funding. The camp is offered free of cost to every child, but, as a result, there are around $40,000 in operating expenses that the student-organizers have to cover. The national organization does not provide any funding, so other than the original Livestrong grant, the students are left to fundraise on their own. Efforts have included letter-writing drives, donations from local businesses and even jars set outside of Family Weekend a capella concerts. Flynn says she hopes that they will be able to solicit more funding now that they have established themselves with a successful summer.
But that funding is also important for Yale’s program to establish itself among those at other colleges. Flynn pointed out that other schools that organize Kesem branches — such as MIT and Duke — have so many campers that they have two sessions of per summer. At Stanford, there are over 120 campers who regularly attend.
Yale’s members aren’t yet aiming for that number — they only planned host to 40 kids this year — but their current goal for the next year is to double the number of campers. Flynn has dreams for many more.
“To only be one year new and already have the campus presence that we do is so exciting for us and hopefully makes our reach more widespread and more influential. We want as many people who want to get involved. It’s amazing. and I can’t wait to see how this year goes.”
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At 4:00 a.m. on Wednesday, the loud peal of a telephone ring awakened Brink. She was told that the guardians of one of the eight-year-old girls would be coming to pick her up and bring her to the hospital — the girl’s mother was in critical condition.
“Her mom died that afternoon,” Brink said.
Later in the day, Brink received yet another phone call — the girl was coming back to camp.
“We were all at dinner. We put her stuff away, I’m walking her into dinner, and one of the counselors comes up and picks her up and gives her a huge hug, her whole table comes up and gives her a huge hug, and she’s just happy, happy, happy, a huge smile on her face.”
Brink said she thinks it’s the biggest testament to what Kesem does — that the girl wanted to come back to camp.