Senior Rachel Berry was 13 when her dad died from cancer. After he died, it was hard for her to go to school. She didn’t want her classmates to pity her, and she didn’t want to drop the “cancer bomb” when a new friend asked what her parents did.
Junior Sarah Cline was 13 when her dad was first diagnosed with cancer, but she was in high school when he died. During those years her dad was sick, Cline said her friends provided amazing support — but none of them could truly understand or relate.
But when both discovered Camp Kesem during their first year at UNC, they knew they had to get involved.
“I knew Kesem was something I wanted to do because it would’ve been an invaluable support system for me,” Cline said. “I wanted to be able to give back to a robust support system for these kids.”
Camp Kesem is a weeklong student-run and student-funded summer camp for kids ages 6 to 16 who have a parent diagnosed with cancer, in remission from cancer or who died from cancer. It is a place that aims to be a haven where they can get support and make lifelong friends who have had the same experiences as them.
“It’s an environment where these kids feel completely accepted and understood and loved, which is a lot of times what they don’t have at their own homes,” Berry said. “Sometimes when you’re a kid you can’t even wrestle with the emotions and feelings.”
Berry now serves as the co-director for Camp Kesem at UNC and Cline is the development coordinator. Since the camp is student-funded, they work together with other members of the executive board to plan fundraisers and recruit campers and counselors.
UNC’s chapter of Camp Kesem was founded in 2002. It was one of the first three chapters for the Camp Kesem National organization, which now supports over 150 chapters at different colleges across the country.
UNC’s chapter was initially started as a joint chapter with Duke, and just separated last year in order to serve more kids at each school.
Kendall McKee, who works as a regional program director for Camp Kesem National and oversees the UNC chapter, said the importance of the camp is the specific yet large need that it serves.
“There was a study done a couple years ago that basically saw that there were 5 million kids in the U.S. alone that were affected by a parents’ or guardians' cancer,” she said. “And it’s really difficult in that moment when a parent has cancer and the kids are having to fight a silent battle of dealing with it on their own and not knowing how and not wanting to take away from their parents. So the really cool thing about Camp Kesem is the kids get to see they’re not alone in that fight.”
First-year Reed Macdonald, who began attending the camp at age 11 and is volunteering as a counselor this summer, said the idea of not being alone was the most important part of camp for him.
“When you talk about how you feel bad for not being able to help your mom, who is throwing up from chemo all week, there are 30 people there who know exactly how you feel,” he said. “Having a parent with cancer is such a reality and always a presence. So it’s a place where that identity can come through and be expressed.”
And whether it’s expressed through impromptu dance parties at twilight, food fights or standing up and sharing a painful experience, Berry said the terrible power cancer has is turned into something good through “moments of magic” at camp — magic being the definition of “kesem” in Hebrew.
“I am able to think this awful thing that everybody has had to go through is just really beautiful in the end if it can bring so much joy,” Berry said. “Camp Kesem has shown me that we’re not meant to sulk in our sorrows but to be able to share them with other people, and help each other through it by what we’ve learned and how we’ve grown."
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