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Free Camp Offers Help for Kids Facing Parent’s Cancer

by Lilly Fowler

March 11, 2009 | 3:17 am

Corinne Lightweaver has spent nearly seven years fighting cancer; first diagnosed with lymphoma in 2003, doctors then discovered she had breast cancer in 2007. The stress and anxiety associated with her life-threatening illness had taken a toll on the entire family, including her wife, Stacey Peyer, and their daughter, who at 7 has had a parent with cancer for most of her young life.

So when the couple came across an ad for Camp Kesem, a sleep-away camp offered free for kids who have or have had a parent with cancer, they decided to send their daughter for the first time last year to have fun and develop friendships with kids in a similar situation.

The couple had not intended to send their daughter to summer camp so young, and they fretted over whether the experience would be a positive one. But looking back a year later, the couple said that Kesem helped buoy the family’s spirits.

“For us it was a big lift,” said Lightweaver, 46, who is in remission. 

Camp Kesem, much like Kids Konnected or Comfort Zone Camp, gives children the chance to interact with peers who share the same heartache. What differentiates Kesem is that its programming is run mostly by college student volunteers on 22 campuses throughout the United States. The camps feature typical activities — arts and crafts, sports, drama, campfires and singing — and provide children with an opportunity to talk about and share the experience of having a parent with cancer or losing one to the disease.

In the Los Angeles area, volunteer student counselors from UCLA will join more than 90 campers at Camp Whittier in the hills of Santa Barbara June 28-July 3. Although the teen camp is already full, applications for families with children ages 6 to 13 are still available. Both programs, free for campers, are subsidized entirely by grants, donations and other fundraising activities.

Iris Rave founded Camp Kesem in 2000 as a social justice project at Stanford Hillel. The original concept for the camp was to help kids with cancer, but after speaking with doctors and camp directors, the Hillel students discovered that children of parents with cancer were underserved. The first Kesem opened in Northern California with 60 campers and 30 student counselors in 2001.

Launched nationwide the following year, the camps typically maintain a ratio of two campers for each counselor. In addition to student volunteers, the camps also feature paid professionals, including therapists, nurses and directors.

Although the camp originated with Hillel and retained its Hebrew name, which means “magic,” Kesem is now a secular program that attracts college students and children from various backgrounds and faiths.

Each chapter, depending on the size, can have an annual operating budget of $25,000 to $50,000, most of which comes from grants, private donations and campus fundraising events.

Gary Hanson, a senior majoring in mathematics at UCLA, has been involved with the camp since he was a freshman. This year, he is one of two co-chairs in charge of the program.

Hanson said he was drawn to Kesem because his stepmother had been diagnosed with cancer and he enjoyed working with children.

“I decided that I could help,” he said. 

The activity-packed programming makes the experience worthwhile, he said. Campers can expect to take nature walks or night hikes, swim, make ice cream or be entertained by different special guests, which have included a magician and an animal expert.

But “the thing that makes our camp so unique is our Parent Memorial. We allow the children who have lost a parent to gather to remember their parent by either sharing a few words or just showing up,” Hanson said.

The training for college volunteers takes several months, covering topics from games and songs to grief training and techniques for dealing with a difficult camper.

Hannah Karp, a physiological science major at UCLA, first became involved with Camp Kesem in 2007. After spending an entire spring quarter in training for the one-week camping session, she emerged from the experience with an appreciation for the camp’s mission.

“If they’re at school, they’re the kid whose mom has cancer. At Camp Kesem, they lose that stigma,” Karp said.

And with the kids away at camp, families get a chance to catch their breath.

Lightweaver and Peyer said Camp Kesem gave them a week to concentrate on themselves and their relationship, rather than simply coping with the stress of keeping a family together in the face of a serious illness.

Burdened with the financial hardships of Lightweaver’s cancer treatment, Peyer said the opportunity to send their daughter to camp for free also made a huge difference in their lives.

“It just feels like a real gift,” she said.


For more information about the UCLA Camp Kesem session, June 28-July 3, call (310) 361-6854, e-mail ucla@campkesem.org or visit http://www.campkesem.org/ucla.

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