The contagious smiles of children having fun at summer camp are what the members of Rowan’s chapter of Camp Kesem work hard for all year.
Camp Kesem is a nationwide, non-profit organization run by students who help thousands of children with parents who have or previously had cancer. The club works to host a weeklong summer camp for these children. They choose the location and time that works best for the children and their families.
The Rowan chapter of Camp Kesem was founded last year.
“It’s so amazing to see these 6-year-olds have the biggest smiles on their faces despite everything they’ve been through,” said Gina Kneble, co-director of Camp Kesem at Rowan and a biology pre-med major.
At the summer camp, children learn coping skills and meet other children who are going through the same situation. But, perhaps most importantly, they get to be kids again.
“When I was going through similar experiences, I didn’t really have the opportunity that they have, and it’s an awesome thing for them.” – kyle watt
The word “kesem” is Hebrew for “magic.” The founders chose this name because they want to bring magic to families coping with cancer.
At Camp Kesem, everyone gets to pick their own names and be whoever they wish to be.
“When we go to camp, we want the kids to get out of reality and transform,” Kneble said. “So if they like the color purple and want to be known as purple, that’s fine. Each of these names means something to them.”
At camp, Kneble goes by “Ahava,” her Hebrew name that means “love”.
Kyle Watt, director and president of Camp Kesem and a biology pre-med major, goes by “Munk,” a nickname his mother and grandmother, both of whom had cancer, gave to him when he was younger.
“I’ve been through similar experiences with a lot of my family members,” Watt said. “My grandmom died from cancer, so I know what these kids are dealing with. When I was going through similar experiences, I didn’t really have the opportunity that they have, and it’s an awesome thing for them.”
Children from ages six to 16-years-old who live all over New Jersey are invited to Rowan’s Camp Kesem. The club reaches out to hospitals, school districts, guidance counselors and other places where they can find children who are living with a parent’s cancer.
The kids get to participate in fun and comforting activities such as sports, bonfire nights, empowerment night and “cabin chat.” Empowerment night is an emotional experience wherein children and counselors alike share their story with everyone else.
“We had this 6-year-old named Little Fish,” Watt said. “He was the shyest kid I’ve ever met. He wouldn’t talk to anybody and cried the whole first day.
“For some reason, he linked to my hip and wouldn’t leave me alone. He cried through the entire empowerment night,” he continued. “Afterwards, we walked down to the bonfire to hang out and sing songs to ease the mood. He tugged on my shirt and said, ‘it’s my mommy who’s sick.’
“The fact that he went from being the shyest kid to feeling so comfortable around us in that three-day period shows what we are doing is making these kids become somebody else,” Watt said.
The club is entirely fundraising-based, so the members spend the year holding different events. Club members also plan activities for the summer camp.
Currently, Camp Kesem is holding a fundraiser with Yankee Candle until Nov. 11. One of their biggest fundraising goals for this year is called “Make the Magic,” a black-tie gala that they plan to hold around March or April. Everyone is invited. Sponsors and former campers will be in attendance.
Last year, Camp Kesem raised more than $24,000 and hosted 27 campers. This year, they want to reach $40,000 and 40 campers. Each counselor has an individual goal of raising $500 before the summer camp.
Counselors are given a certain number of hours of training wherein they learn different techniques to comfort the children.
“On empowerment day, Giget, one of the little girls, came over and started bawling her eyes out,” Kneble said. “Naturally I wanted to give her the biggest hug and hold her as a cousin or little sister, but you can’t do that. You have to have boundaries and it’s really hard to learn that.”
Camp Kesem stays in touch with parents of the campers. This year, they plan to hold a reunion with the children and their families as part of the camp.
“One of my favorite parts of last year was a week after camp when the families were messaging us, ‘you gave me our kid back,’” Watt said. “That shows us we did make a difference.”
Camp Kesem is actively looking for new counselors. Applications are open and they are hoping to bring more students to the club. All majors are welcomed to join. A balanced mix of majors can benefit the campers.
Last year a child fascinated with physics who chose the name “Einstein” bonded with a counselor who was a physics major. The counselor taught “Einstein” all about science and physics during the camp.
“My favorite part is the last day of camp,” Kneble said. “To see all their faces beaming with smiles and how they all have these stories and they just love us. That just makes everything worthwhile. All the stress of planning, worrying about if they’re going to have fun or not, and then knowing when we leave that we actually are a Camp Kesem family.”
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