Camp Kesem

While many Yale student-athletes return to Connecticut before school starts for preseason practices, a growing number have begun coming back early for a different reason: They give up the final week of their summers to serve as counselors for Yale’s chapter of Camp Kesem.

Camp Kesem is a national organization with 105 chapters that provides subsidized summer camps to children with parents battling cancer. Yale’s chapter has grown significantly in the last five years, expanding from serving 40 campers five years ago to 105 last August, and Yale student-athletes have played an important role in facilitating that growth.

“I think Kesem attracts athletes because we have a deep love for contributing to and being part of a team, working for a group larger than our individual selves,” swimmer Lilla Felix ’19 said. “Kesem allows us to do just that.”

Whether people joined Kesem for personal reasons or after a recommendation from a teammate, the organization has woven itself into the sports community’s fabric of giving.

Softball player Shelby Kennedy ’19 joined Kesem so that she could be a mentor for kids struggling with an experience she knows well. Her father has multiple myeloma, a type of bone marrow cancer. Being a counselor at Kesem has given her the opportunity to “turn such a daunting diagnosis into something positive in [her] life.”

“To date, joining Camp Kesem has been [one of] the most meaningful things that I have had the pleasure to do, as well as objectively the most fun,” Kennedy said. “Putting into words what Kesem means doesn’t do it justice. This camp has changed my life and so many others as well — campers and counselors alike. Kesem is pure. Kesem is love. Kesem is magic.”

Felix too became a Kesem counselor when cancer touched her family. Her grandfather passed away this past fall after battling the disease. For Felix, the Kesem community has been a place of boundless compassion and empathy. Unlike Shelby, who found the organization on her own, however, Felix was introduced to the camp by her captain on the softball team, Paulina Kaminski ’18.

Participation in Kesem has spread rapidly in the student-athlete community, as counselors share their positive experiences with their teammates and encourage them to join.

Swimmer Adrian Lin ’19 also cited Kaminski as the person who got him involved. Lin said that having a parent with cancer can be a confusing and isolating experience, and that he admires how Kesem “provides a community for these kids, so they don’t have to be alone in their circumstance.”

While baseball and swimming have the highest enrollment, many other teams also participate in Kesem, including softball and women’s lacrosse, among others.

“Camp Kesem is popular in the sports community because of the ability for older teammates to recruit younger teammates to be counselors,” baseball player Benny Wanger ’19 said. “Past that, once a counselor gets to camp, everyone is all on the same team: the one fighting cancer.”

Many athletes also feel that giving back to the community is deeply connected to what it means to be on a sports team.

However, the co-director of the Yale chapter, Julia Zou ’19, stressed that while sports teams have historically been the standard bearers for Camp Kesem at Yale, everybody at the University is invited to participate.

“We are looking to recruit 60 counselors so that we can host 120 children,” Zou said. “[The counselors] come from all over campus, but this year we are really looking to focus on diversity, equity and inclusion for our counselors.”

Yale’s chapter has raised over $50,000 so far toward putting together the camp next August.

Caleb Rhodes | caleb.rhodes@yale.edu