BELLEFONTAINE, Ohio — The sights and sounds checked all the boxes for a week at camp.
Canoeing along Lake Mac-O-Chee, a rush of adrenaline and altitude on a high-rope swing, late-night cabin chats, elaborate games, a song for any occasion and messy creations such as cornstarch-based elephant snot.
Young campers and counselors alike cloaked themselves in aliases such as Mojo, King Bob and Beef Stew. Anyone caught using real names could be asked to perform a chaotic kind of miming called the bagel dance.
What separated this one-week experience from others is a difficult truth the children share: a parent’s cancer diagnosis.
The camp organized by Ball State students, who plan to make it an annual event, is designed to give these children respite from the realities of cancer, whether a parent is in treatment or remission, or has lost the battle.
Counselors found that during the week of rituals, playtime and bonding, solemn reminders of the camp’s mission were just under the surface. A child telling a funny story one day paused to remark, “I just got really sad.” During an evening chat, girls in one cabin were given three imaginary wishes, and all of them involved ending cancer.
“Throughout the week, I noticed some of the kids would just get quiet all of a sudden. You would say, ‘What’s wrong?’ And they would say, ‘Nothing, just thinking,’ ” said camp counselor and Ball State junior Megan Cater. “So you could tell that they were thinking about home or thinking about their parents while they were here at camp.”
Cater is one of 26 Ball State undergrads who organized and ran the camp, which is part of a national group called Camp Kesem. The organization has dozens of college-based chapters across the U.S. with the same mission as Ball State’s: to provide a free summer camp for children 6-16 who are dealing with a parent’s cancer diagnosis.
Caring, cancer in counselors’ backgrounds
The students who started Kesem at Ball State are eclectic in their personalities and their academic backgrounds. They’re alternately loud, quiet, funny, reflective and goofy. Their studies include accounting, communication studies, criminal justice, pre-med and social work.
In building Ball State’s chapter, they raised money, scouted out a campsite, attended various meetings and underwent training. Many prepared for their role over several months, while some worked at it for more than a year.
And like the children they’re helping, a few have parents who were diagnosed with cancer.
Mallori Wisuri is never far from memories of her father, most of them happy. The senior biology major from Evansville, Indiana, might hear one of his favorite songs, or an old photo of him might pop up on her computer.
His cancer diagnosis came when she and her two brothers — they’re triplets — were 6. She was still a few years away from knowing fully what was happening. Initially, her father’s news meant she sometimes rode different buses to and from school and spent a lot of time at an aunt and uncle’s house while her father was receiving treatment.
“I don’t think I really understood that much,” said Wisuri. “I just realized that my parents would go away for a couple of days or a week every couple months.”
She navigated her father’s illness until his death 12 years after his diagnosis. The experience still informs her life’s path.
You can see it in her studies. She’s pre-med, has performed cancer research in the biology department and is considering oncology once she gets to medical school.
Then there’s her decision to be a part of Camp Kesem. When she looks at her life, she still sees a meaningful childhood, but she’s worried the same won’t be true for many youths dealing with a parent’s cancer.
She also wanted to exemplify a simple message: Life goes on.
“Mostly it’s being there for them and using myself as a role model for them and just being able to (say), ‘I’ve been through it. I’ve gone through (having) a parent with cancer. And I’m still doing just fine.’ ”
A week that can change lives
Cater, a psychological science major from Fort Wayne, Indiana, said she joined Kesem to give others the kind of comfort she and her four siblings never had. She was 9 when her mother was diagnosed with cancer and 18 when she died.
“Just the ability to go away for a week and be a kid is something I wish I had, so I want these kids to have it,” she said. “Even though it’s just a week, it’s a week that could change their life and perspective on everything.”
Other counselors find empathy elsewhere: a more distant relative who had a brush with cancer, a family member with a different illness or a parent’s diagnosis that turned out not to be cancer. That’s the case with Austin Reed, whose parents both had skin problems that turned out benign.
The pre-med biology major said the uncertainty and fear he felt pales in comparison to what the kids he worked with at camp are going through.
“When you don’t know it’s benign, you sit around for a couple of weeks and, out of nowhere, everything ended up being fine,” said Reed, a senior from Yorktown, Indiana. “So, to have that story turned around a little bit, like, ‘OK, is it serious? It’s actually from your kidney, pancreas or something life-altering,’ I couldn’t imagine. I couldn’t imagine then, I can’t imagine now.”
Reed’s close call, however, does help him understand the value of a fun week at camp. He isn’t afraid to ham it up around children, and when told fellow counselors describe him as very energetic, he lets out a laugh.
“I can give off the impression that I’m not afraid to make a fool of myself,” he said, “and I actually enjoy it sometimes.”
College students: Kesem’s ‘secret sauce’
The beginnings of Camp Kesem — “kesem” means “magic” in Hebrew — trace to a social action project created by a Stanford University Jewish student group in 2000. The students concluded that children whose lives are affected by a parent’s cancer diagnosis have distinctive, often unmet needs. That set the stage for the first chapter the following year and a camp attended by 37 children.
Kesem has grown steadily since and this summer sponsored 90 weeks of camps through 73 chapters in 34 states.
The organization, which estimates more than 3 million children in the U.S. are affected by a parent’s cancer diagnosis, said college students have been critical to its success.
“We call it our ‘secret sauce,’ ” said Tracey Landstrom, Kesem’s manager of operations. “There is this idea that in college you have to give back, but what we found is these students who choose to get involved, they have that already in them, that kind of social responsibility.”
Social responsibility is just the beginning of what it takes to get a Kesem chapter off the ground.
Becca Hasler became co-director of Kesem at Ball State after learning about the organization from a friend at another university. She said she and others began laying the groundwork 16 months before the children sang their first camp song.
They had to register as a student organization on campus, file paperwork with Kesem’s national office and recruit other students to take part. Several of them attended a national conference in November.
A grant from Eli Lilly and Co. helped jump-start fundraising, but the students still brought in more than $37,000, some of it as “seed” money to subsidize the camp for its first few years.
There was training, a stream of meetings and phone calls and scouring for a campsite within a two-hour drive of Ball State. They selected YMCA’s Camp Willson — about 90 miles east of Muncie, Indiana — after Ohio State’s Kesem chapter left it for a new campsite.
Selling a free camp? Harder than it sounds
Then they set about finding campers, which wasn’t easy at first.
“We weren’t sure whether we just weren’t talking to the right people or we were talking to them too soon,” said Hasler, a senior biochemistry major, “because parents don’t really think about camp till later, we found out.”
The students reached out to social workers, psychologists and counselors at various schools, contacted cancer agencies and spoke to a breast cancer support group, Hasler said. Online, they found success by monitoring cancer-related Facebook groups across Indianapolis, Fort Wayne and western Ohio.
“Anyone that posted to the (groups’ Facebook pages), I commented on their post, ‘Hi, my name’s Becca.’ And I actually got two campers that way.”
The 23 children who attended — most came from Fort Wayne, the Indianapolis area and South Bend — benefited from the counselors’ preparation, said Jane Saccaro, Kesem’s Chicago-based CEO, who spent a day at the Ball State chapter’s camp.
“What I love is how connected the student leaders are, the counselors. They are truly performing like a well-oiled machine, right out of the gate,” she said during a dining hall lunch that included hamburgers, french fries and a salad bar.
“They did a lot of really good training leading up to this, hours and hours. We require about 40 hours of counselor training before they can come to camp. In addition to that, they did a lot of smart things, a lot of bonding activities so that, by the time they got here, they had such great respect for one another and such great appreciation for one another.”
To hear the Ball State students tell it, they have benefited from the experience as much as they’ve put into it.
Acquaintances with the children turned into connections, and connections became friendships, the strength of which took some counselors by surprise.
“The thing is, how much I influenced them, they also influenced me. They’re opening up a little bit more about things they like to do at home,” said sophomore criminal justice and criminology major Jamal Brooks of Evansville, Indiana. “And when we’re apart for a while, it’s weird how they would come seek you out just to tell you things. By the end of the day, you guys are kind of family within your own group. And I really appreciate that. It’s something I didn’t quite expect.”