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Youth, Families, & Cancer SIG: Camp Kesem - Magic for the Whole Family Facing Cancer

February 1, 2020


If you work with any adult who has cancer and also has kids, you need to know about Camp Kesem. It’s a free sleepover camp for kids who have a parent with cancer, and the support provided by the camp extends throughout the year. At Gilda’s Club Madison I have had the pleasure of partnering with our local Camp Kesem since its inception more than 10 years ago. I have also gone to camp as their mental health professional to experience camp first-hand. Without exception, every family we have referred to Camp Kesem has been hooked—even those families who have anxious kids or teens who hate everything. They all come back with giant smiles on their faces.

I interviewed Maddie "Ace" Petre, Lizzie "Crocs" Geiger and Morgan "Aurora" Lentz, co-directors of Camp Kesem at the University of Wisconsin Madison. All counselors and campers select a “camp” name to provide a little anonymity and add an element of unique fun to the camp experience.

1. What is the magic of Camp Kesem?

Kesem is the Hebrew word for magic, which makes sense for anyone who has ever experienced the love and compassion felt within the Camp Kesem family. Both campers and counselors often describe “Going to Camp Kesem” as magical because of the connections and relationships built between campers and counselors. Camp Kesem is a place where those whose lives have been impacted by cancer can feel heard, accepted and loved. It is a place where campers feel safe to express their true selves and indulge in a week of fun where they can leave behind the adult-like responsibilities they have assumed and all of the worries they have in their day-to day-life. Camp Kesem is magic because the mission works to make sure no child experiences cancer alone and can feel our love and support year round.

2. How is Camp Kesem different than other camps?

This camp is a cost-free overnight camp that serves children whose parent's life has been impacted by cancer. Any child age 6-18 with a parent who has had cancer, a parent who is currently experiencing cancer or a parent who has passed and had cancer is eligible for Camp Kesem services. Camp Kesem is not a therapy camp but rather a week-long opportunity for these kiddos to have fun and enjoy the magical community of individuals who can empathize and support each other through their shared experiences and journeys. Camp Kesem UW-Madison serves over 300 children and has three weeks of summer camp, supporting new children each week.

3. How does Camp Kesem help connect families facing cancer?

The camp is more than just a weeklong summer camp. It also provides year-round services for families impacted by cancer. This support comes in several forms including:

  • Kesem By Your Side, an opportunity for families to interact with counselors outside of camp during a time of hardship or grief.
  • Kesem Special Deliveries is utilized when families express need for extra support; we send special deliveries such as homemade blankets or cards from counselors. We also send grief support cards and birthday cards.
  • Friends and Family Days are held a couple times a year to provide a day of fun for all our campers where they can interact with counselors, sponsors and other families in the Camp Kesem family.
  • Reunions, and
  • Kesem Warm Welcomes is a service we provide before camp. These are special gifts we send to our families along with camp information materials to welcome them to our camp before the summer begins. We also have Facebook groups for our parents to interact and communicate on throughout the year

4. How can families get connected with Camp Kesem?

General Camper Applications opened on January 21, 2020, and online applications can be submitted after that date. We are happy to help any and everyone who can benefit from our services and we welcome anyone into our Kesem family with open arms. Visit our national website for more information and to find the camp that is closest to you — www.CampKesem.org. Families can also connect with us on Instagram, Facebook and LinkedIn.

5. Do you have a particular story or quote to help oncology social workers understand what happens at camp, and why it is so special?

A Camp Kesem Camper said, "When kids have parents that have cancer, it sucks, because cancer sucks. But that is why I like to come here. Because you get to let out all the bad and negative stuff."

"I Kesem for the kids. I feel like they are the heart and soul of Kesem and bring the magic to camp." A Camp Kesem Counselor

"I Kesem for my mom and for everyone at Kesem that I have come to love and care for. I just really love the environment of love and acceptance." A Camp Kesem Camper

About the Author

Carissa Hodgson, LCSW, OSW-C

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