To a passing observer, Camp Kesem seems like a typical sleepaway camp. There’s swimming, arts and crafts, canoeing and tons of other fun-filled activities.
But the secret to what sets this camp apart from others can be found in its name: ‘Kesem’, which is Hebrew for magic. It’s Camp Kesem’s mission to create magic for kids whose families have been touched by cancer.
It started at Stanford University in 2000, and it has continued to grow, spreading to 80 chapters in 38 states. The camp, which has a chapter in Los Angeles, is completely run by college students and free of charge to its campers.
The Camp Kesem chapter at USC is entering its fifth year and it's one of seven universities in Southern California that offer the summer camp. One of the counselors at this year’s Camp Kesem USC is Claire Witzke. She was a camper from 2007-2012. In 2014, she returned as a counselor.
Claire shared her story with Take Two.
Joining the magic
Claire’s father was diagnosed with colon cancer when she was in third grade. “Then it went away, and then it came back. Then it went away and then it came back again, and that final time he passed away.” Claire was in sixth grade.
“And then this other guy in my sixth-grade class, he said ‘Has your mom told you about the camp yet?’ I went home and asked my mom, ‘What’s this camp? What’s going on?’ and she told me it was a camp for kids whose parents have cancer and that I was signed up to go that summer.”
When Claire arrived at camp she was taken aback. “Everyone seemed like they cared more about each other than cancer,” she said. “It was still very hard for me, the first two maybe like, two years of Camp Kesem...I really did love it but it was so hard for me to make friends because I was still so angry and confused and I didn’t know how to open up yet.”
While it was hard for Claire to adjust, one of the things that made it easier were the counselors: college students who volunteer their time to the camp and its mission. "It was really nice to see all the counselors pay so much attention to us and really care, what we were feeling and even though they weren't in the same situation...they just wanted to be there for us and they just wanted to see us happy and just have a time where we can just be kids," she said. "And the fact that we were all going through that, all of our parents had cancer, it didn't matter as much. Outside of camp that was the only thing that mattered, it was what defined us... "
Paying it forward
Camp Kesem not only helped Claire feel like a regular kid again—it also gave her a space to be emotional. "One of my counselors, he had a brother that passed away and he was just this huge guy, very very huge track star. And he just got up and he cried about it and that was honestly...very eye opening because I was able to cry about it then."
The Stanford counselor's example left an impression on Claire so when she became a counselor herself, she was ready to pay it forward. "I knew that, well, now it's my time to be that huge Stanford track star guy. Get up there and show that it's okay to cry and it's okay to be emotional and tell people about cancer. And it's okay to tell people if you're sad or what you need."
During Claire's first week as a Camp Kesem counselor, she was hit with some devastating news, "My mom was diagnosed with leukemia and so I was stuck in this same rut of 'why did this happen to me? I can't believe this happened again.' I was so glad that I had that new Camp Kesem USC family, that I could talk to them about it and they knew exactly what to say and how to comfort me and how to be there for me a lot more than my other friends at USC...
"So, I had my campers and the counselors at the Camp Kesem Stanford when I was grieving my dad's passing and going through that and now I had this new Camp Kesem USC family for not only my mom and what she went through with leukemia but...what else might come."
Claire just finished up her third summer as a counselor and she plans to continue spreading the Camp Kesem mission. Her mother is in remission.
For more information on Camp Kesem, click here.