It’s an old tradition: at the sound of the year’s final school bell, kids of all shapes and sizes burst through heavy double doors and sprint into freedom. They dodge flying lab reports in the hallway, and upon reaching home they slip by Mom’s inevitable “How was the last day, honey?” And off they go to the pool, or the baseball park, or the super-secret treehouse left over from last summer.
All except for a lucky few. They bolt straight to their rooms, dust off their old L.L. Bean duffels, smack them onto the floor, and begin to pack. Into the bags they throw bug spray, bathing suits, sneakers, sandals, a red bandana, several pairs of socks and one glistening white t-shirt that they don’t intend to take off for the next two months because where they’re going, that’s okay.
For they are off to camp. And for the next five to eight weeks, they will enjoy every form of outdoor bliss one can imagine. A childhood summer as if it were taken from a Norman Rockwell painting.
Every summer, Yale sponsors one such camp, one that on its surface seems to fit all the old clichés. It’s called Camp Kesem, and it’s run, from top to bottom, by Yale student volunteers. (Well, all except for two very pretty nurses we bring in from elsewhere, but even they fit into this Rockwell masterpiece.) Students raise funds, plan events, handle administrative duties and, of course, work as counselors at Kesem’s rented home: Camp Laurelwood in Madison, Connecticut. Kesem is a national organization that hosts summer camps at universities across the country. The camp runs for just under a week, and during that time, it functions much like a normal camp. In fact, were it not for one hidden reality of elephantine proportions, Kesem would be highly normal.
But the reality remains. Kesem admits only those campers whose parents have had traumatic encounters with cancer. Many students have lost a parent. Some are the children of breast cancer survivors; others lost their mom or dad when they were four; others live part-time with their grandparents to let their remaining parent work. One father arrived to drop his sons off, hardly able to walk because of the three types of stage-four cancer that had spread throughout his body. Another girl’s grandfather doesn’t believe in chemotherapy, so he comes home from the hospital with holes in his skin. Another camper has no living parents.
Every camper had a story like this. Counselors were expected to be their friends amid all the fun, but we had to be wary of simple things, like asking, “Is your mom coming to pick you up?” Or even “What did you do last weekend?” At least, we felt we had to act that way. The kids, however, acted like, well, kids. Laughing, jumping, belly-flopping and beaming from ear-to-ear, even though they had every reason not to.
On the second-to-last night of camp, the evenings of singing, dancing and candy-hunting come to an end, and the entire camp congregates for an event that separates Kesem from the rest called Empowerment. There, we sit in a circle in the dining hall, and every age group, from 6-year-olds to 18-year-olds, shares their experiences. It’s not too long before the tears start to fall, from campers and counselors alike. In the middle of this solemn, gut-punch of an experience, a 13-year-old girl who hardly looks over the age of ten stood up and said, “Cancer sucks. And I know there’s not a cure, but what we’re doing here, having so much fun and making all these friends, seems to beat it to me.”
Cancer is a condition, not a way of life. If nothing else, that is what Kesem preaches. Kesem takes overburdened kids and uses fun as an antidote, perhaps the most powerful antidote. And in doing so it gently reminds us all never to take for granted a beautiful summer day, or that little kid in all of us that is eager to charge out the door.