Magic. That is what Kesem means in Hebrew, and that is the first thing that comes to mind when members of this national organization describe Camp Kesem.
Camp Kesem is a free summer camp for children whose parents are diagnosed with cancer. It is almost entirely run and organized by students of universities throughout the United States. The College of William and Mary’s chapter is led by a coordinator board made up of 18 students, with Nick Wessman ’22 as one of two directors.
“We have a team of coordinators that take care of everything from outreach, to finding new members, to planning what happens at camp, to fundraising,” Wessman said.
In addition to the coordinator board, Kesem is made up of a group of over 100 general body members, including Sammie Chaitovitz ’25, that meet regularly with the coordinator board.
“The meetings aren’t super strict,” Chaitovitz said. “They’re very laid back, and people in the audience will talk because they all feel super comfortable, and they all encourage each other.”
The coordinator board and the general body run the day-to-day operations of Kesem. The directors of the College’s chapter of Kesem are in contact with Camp Kesem Nationals to coordinate what needs to be done weekly, such as sending training videos, Kelsey McAlister ’24, a coordinator of outreach at the College’s chapter of Kesem, explained.
“In terms of camp, everything is done by us,” McAlister said.
Despite it being seen primarily as a summer camp, Kesem is active year-round. The members fundraise thousands of dollars throughout the year. Their biggest day of donations is Giving Tuesday, the Tuesday after Thanksgiving, since no fees are applied to social media donations throughout the day. This school year, they were able to raise $48,000, nearly half of their yearly goal of $100,000.
“My co-director got an anonymous $1,000 donation, and he has no idea who it’s from. People see this cause, and they really recognize it as important,” Meredith Webb ‘23, co-coordinator of fundraising, said. “Giving Tuesday was just so special. We always say it’s Kesem Christmas.”
In addition to fundraising throughout the year, members of Kesem also offer year-long support to the children whose parents have been diagnosed with cancer. Often, this support is found in letter writing campaigns that both the coordinator board and general body members are involved in. Students send cards to child participants of Kesem for their birthdays, as well as either when their parents are undergoing treatment or on the anniversaries of their parent’s deaths. The coordinators of outreach even go to parents’ funerals to show Kesem kids support.
Kesem is more than just a summer camp. It is a year-round support group for children who are dealing with their parents having cancer.
“Kesem nationally is really trying to communicate that message,” Wessman said. “For years they have been ‘Camp Kesem.’ They are changing their name to just ‘Kesem.’ The camp is just one part of the overall support network that we are trying to provide.”
This aspect of constant support is part of why Kesem holds such a special place in many hearts. Even those new to the organization like Chaitovitz can feel the community that Kesem provides.
“Everybody always talks about Kesem magic,” Chaitovitz said. “They call it magic because it’s kind of unexplainable how special it is to be in that kind of environment.”
Kesem provides a place for kids to just be kids, away from the worries and challenges of their parents having cancer.
“We give them a space where they can just be their full, authentic self and get an oasis away from the sickness that is in their home,” Webb said. “It just creates this environment where they can grow and be confident.”
Kesem also provides a space for children to be vulnerable as they are surrounded by people who understand what they’re going through. McAlister explained that Kesem is able to exist as both an escape from the troubles of a parent’s cancer through a fun summer camp, but also as a space to talk about their hardships.
“You can, if you want to, open up, and know that people around you probably have a better idea of what you might be feeling versus they would at school,” McAlister said.
It is not just the children that feel the effect of Kesem. Counselors and members say that they gain so much from being part of the organization. It provides a place for these students to get away from their own troubles as well.
“As college students, we’re so busy, and we can get really caught up in our own lives and our own career paths and what’s going to make us successful and stuff,” Webb said. “But taking these moments to take part of Camp Kesem and bringing joy to people who need it is so special.”
Many students find that they also learn from the children that come to camp. McAlister spoke about the impact that these children have had on her.
“You can see human perseverance so much through children,” McAlister said. “They’re not consciously knowing that they’re pushing through, they just kind of do it. Seeing their perseverance honestly makes me want to persevere more.”
Even those who were never affiliated with Kesem see its potential for good. Wessman shared that many anonymous donors on Giving Tuesday were people who said they wished that they knew of Kesem when they were eligible to participate.
“Someone donated and said, ‘My dad died of colon cancer when I was six. I wish there was something like this back then,’” Wessman said.
Kesem offers a space full of support for children whose parents are diagnosed with cancer. It’s effect extends far beyond a summer camp. It is magic.