Camp Kesem - For the Children Affected by their Families’ Cancer

Generally, resources for those affected by cancer are specifically for those diagnosed with cancer. But many times the families of those diagnosed are also struggling to cope, provide, and are scared for their loved ones and for what the future holds. Fortunately, there are resources and organizations providing support to the families of those affected by their loved one’s cancer. You can find many cancer related resources on our Cancer Support page, one of them being, Camp Kesem, a nationwide community, driven by passionate college student leaders, that supports children through and beyond their parent’s cancer. We had the pleasure of interviewing college student leaders and co-directors, Brodi Amos and Juliana Iverson from the Camp Kesem at University of Texas - Austin.

What is Camp Kesem and what do they do?

Who is Camp Kesem helping and why?

Brodi answered that Camp Kesem’s main program is a free week-long summer camp for children who have been affected by a parent or guardian’s cancer diagnosis. They operate two sessions of camp each summer at their UT Austin chapter specifically, but camp sessions at each chapter are different across the country. Camp Kesem (CK) is essentially just a support system for families who have a parent/guardian experiencing cancer. Right now they serve families who are in remission, who are currently undergoing treatment, and also families who had a parent/guardian pass away from cancer. But essentially, they are there to support the kids and the main way they do that is through their free week-long summer camp, but they also provide support services throughout the year.

How does Camp Kesem work?

According to Juliana, there is a big national organization called Camp Kesem National and under them, there are over 100 chapters nation-wide at different college campuses that are expanded every year. This national corporation gives the camp chapters direction and help in terms of a program director who oversees chapters in each specific region. UT Austin’s program director oversees the camp in Austin and holds weekly meetings to make sure everyone and everything is on track, as there are a lot of little details that can fall in the cracks if just college students were in charge of it. But Juliana also maintains that the student leaders have freedom in their own camps, such as their camp schedule, the Friends and Family days (which they have twice a year), and how to best support the families. Camp Kesem National just makes sure they do it the right way.

When are the camps and where are they? Which cities and states does Camp Kesem currently offer?

Right now, Camp Kesem is operating over 115 chapters across the nation, Brodi says CK is operating in 42 states and counting across the U.S. “So you should be able to find a camp wherever you’re located. You might have to travel a little bit, but in the next couple of years, a huge goal is to make sure we have at least one chapter in every state.” Currently in Texas there are 5 chapters, which are UT Austin, A&M, U of Houston, Rice (also in Houston), and UT Dallas. All of these camps/chapters work together to provide the basis for the Camp Kesem mission which is to serve all children affected by cancer.

In the U.S. alone, there are over 5 million children who have been impacted by cancer according to a study conducted by CKN (Camp Kesem National).

“The reach is huge and there are millions of children who are impacted by cancer who may not know about Camp Kesem” says Brodi. The chapters and the communities themselves are who do the groundwork and figure out who in their community has been affected. The college student leaders are who do the outreach to make sure that Camp Kesem is maximizing their potential. Camp Kesem UT Austin had a goal to serve 220 campers, but their camp this summer is waitlisted and will be serving a little under 240 campers this year. Brodi says Camp Kesem National is always looking to start new chapters thus more outreach into the communities.

How long is the program? Does a child need to re-enroll if they want to come back the following year, can they come back every year?

In the past their camps have been 6 days, and this year, they will be able to extend it to a full 7 days from July 7-13th and August 4-10th, 2019. A child does need to re-enroll for each year’s program on a website called Kesem Force that Camp Kesem National runs and updates themselves. CKN keeps track of all the families and makes sure that every family who has attended in the past, have the chance to re-enroll. If a family has enrolled before, they get about a month grace period for pre-enrollment, prioritizing families that are returning.

Is it just a once-a-year event for the children to participate in?

Brodi says the camp is just once a year, children will attend a camp in the summer but CK has different events for the children and families throughout the year. Camp Kesem aims to always be available for their families, making CK year-around support. During certain anniversaries, such as a parent who passed away, they want to extend their support and say “If you need us, we can come and visit with the camper” and be there for them as as a nice presence, maybe a way for the child to take their mind off of the situation.

Camp Kesem also has two big events throughout the year, called Friends and Family Day, one in the spring and one in the fall, and that’s a way for CK staff to get together with the returning campers and their families, just as a little reunion, and also welcome new camper families who are interested in getting their children involved in a camp the following summer. “If they want to come out and meet us, meet the other campers, meet other parents, it’s a great way for them to do that” says Brodi.

How did the both of you (Brodi and Juliana) get involved with Camp Kesem? And why?

For Juliana, her two older sisters started Camp Kesem in 2011 at UT Austin, with the help of their dad who’s now a Dean at UT Austin. They really hit the ground running, the chapter started pretty small, but has grown a lot since then. So Juliana’s known about CK since 2011, since she was pretty young. To Juliana, it’s always been kind of an unspoken rule that she’ll join Camp Kesem. “They didn’t pressure me, but it was still there, so freshman year, 3 ½ years ago, I went to an info session and they were just the weirdest people in the best ways ever. So since then, I’ve been hooked and wanted to be involved as much as possible.”

Brodi says he didn’t have the same Iverson legacy Juliana had, but that he got involved in a very similar way. It was because of Juliana’s dad, who was Brodi’s organic chemistry professor… One day, early on in the semester of his sophomore year, his professor showed them a video in class, the camp video from the previous summer, and instantly Brodi says he was hooked.

“Because, you could see, even from this three minute video, that it had such a huge impact on the children.”

Before showing the video, his professor explained how this was a camp for children who were experiencing very adverse situations, like their parents had cancer, so Brodi was expecting it to be really sad. “I was preparing myself to cry, but then I saw the video and the kids were so happy, like any other kids at a summer camp. They were swimming and going on the lake and the blob and all that kind of stuff. They were having a great time and that got me really interested and I was thinking how do they provide such an environment that makes them feel that way when they’re going through those kinds of situations, so I was instantly hooked.” Brodi then attended an info session that week for Camp Kesem and recalled:

“They were crazy fun people and I kind of found my little community on campus and since then I’ve never wanted to leave, and I feel like it was that way for both of us.”

Can you tell us about how Camp Kesem is connecting with the Austin community?

Brodi explains that the Camp Kesem UT Austin chapter wouldn’t have been possible without a grant from the LiveStrong Foundation. “I think that the non-profit community and the cancer community within Austin and specifically Travis County has made huge strides in the past years especially to connect with the health and the well-being of the community and I think that’s been the case for our chapter’s entire history.” Back to that first year in 2011, Brodi explains that none of that would have happened if other people didn’t invest their time and resources into the chapter, so because of that they’ve really tried to make connecting with the community in different ways a priority, by always aiming to find new organizations like LiveStrong and different people and partners in the community that can work together, who have a mutual interest in helping the community, helping the cancer community specifically. Camp Kesem provides a very specific service/program, but they also want to help their families find other outlets from other support systems. Also, as a growing non-profit, CK relies on the support of other nonprofits and businesses within the Austin community. This has allowed them to grow very fast, serving more campers each summer. Brodi says that at the end of the day, that’s their biggest goal.

Other than emotional support and a sense of community for the program attendees and their families, what other resources do you believe people affected by cancer need/want?

Juliana says Camp Kesem sees all different types of families in all types of situations. They have a big annual fundraiser every year, they’ve had families who come and fill a table and donate a lot of money, who clearly aren’t super financially burdened by cancer. On the contrary, they have families asking for gas vouchers because they can’t make it to the Friends and Family Days. “So there’s no one-size-fits-all for a resource if it’s not purely about giving them a community where everyone can understand similar things they’re going through in terms of cancer. So we find trying to be as open as possible and trying to reduce as many barriers for the cancer community is the best that we can do.” For Brodi, he believes families affected by cancer just need support—prolonged support. Camp Kesem tries to address those barriers and believes an open line of communication is really important, because that’s the only way to really know and become aware of the needs the families have. Brodi explains that families in need of support don’t want to burden you or the people that are providing services/resources to them, so usually, they’re not going to be outright and tell you what they need, so we should be the ones to establish open communication, that we are there for them and their family. We should be making the first step to ask what they need and what services will help them.

“Every family is different and a lot of people might be uncomfortable with asking for help, so it’s important to make that ask and say that you’re here for them in any way because when you have all these things going on, when you’re getting treated for cancer, as your family is undergoing these different and difficult changes, it’s kind of hard to focus on asking for help and sometimes they need other people to do that for them.”

For Brodi, it’s just that simple. Making that first ask is really important in establishing that line of communication, making them feel comfortable, making them feel confident that you’re there to support them in any way possible and that it’s not a burden to ask for help.

Can you give your best example of the way you’ve seen Camp Kesem’s work make a difference?

Juliana says they have one camper who started attending Camp Kesem’s camps 7 years ago. Her dad was diagnosed with cancer and then unfortunately passed away, and then later on, her mother was diagnosed with cancer, so she’s had a harder life than most people can imagine. But she talks about Camp Kesem as a huge light in her life, and something that she always wants to return to. This year, this particular camper is turning 19, so she’ll get to serve as a camp counselor. She is the first camper who’s grown up within the Austin chapter that has been able to serve as a counselor. Juliana says the camper spoke at their annual fundraising gala this year, and she talked about how she has this insane desire to give back to the community that’s given so much to her. So it’s really hard to put what Camp Kesem does for a camper into words Juliana says. She struggled with it herself. “But her need to want to give back to a cause, I think says it all.”

What would you say to someone who’s considering Camp Kesem?

Brodi explains that Camp Kesem has a lot of avenues for new families to get involved, mainly during the bi-annual Friends and Family Days. During these events, new families come and meet the counselors as well as other families and their children. Families will come and ask questions, their two main concerns being: the parents are worried that their child has never gone to an away overnight camp before, they haven’t been away that long… it’s a whole week away from their families, and they’re usually pretty tight knit because of their circumstances. Brodi recalls that the families always have worries coming in about giving their child up to a group of college students for a week. They know it’s going to be fun, but they still have their reservations. “What we tell our new families when we first meet them is to talk to other parents who have had their kids go to camp before and I think that makes them feel better instantly” says Brodi. They understand that this is a very special community, it’s a very special group of college students who really just go above and beyond, setting aside time in their lives when they could be doing other things with their studies or jobs, just because they care and because they want these kids to have this great experience. “We want to improve their lives as much as we can.” Brodi says it’s okay to have those feelings and those reservations, everybody’s nervous, especially when it’s an overnight, out of town camp, but Brodi encourages families to come out to the Friends and Family Days to “meet us, talk to us, email us, look at our website and establish that communication and usually families feel a lot better right away.”

By the time the children return from camp, it’s a huge difference.

Brodi says the parents always talk about how they feel kind of sad because their children will come back from camp and are asking if they can go back. It’s a good problem to have and it’s definitely a common thing with CK parents to feel that way. And for the kids themselves, many children experience homesickness and nervousness when they go off to camp. Brodi explains that their drop off day is in this big pavilion at the camp, they’re all getting to know each other at the same time and that it’s very easy to see which kids are shy and reserved. “But then if you took a picture of this child at the beginning of the week and the child at the end of the week, it’s a complete difference and they always want to come back.” Brodi says Camp Kesem has an extremely high return rate, 99% of campers return each summer. So it’s definitely valid to have those concerns, but Brodi urges parents and families to just get involved. “It’s hard to take that first step, but after that, it’s a lot easier.”

What else do you think we should know about Camp Kesem?

Brodi expresses that Camp Kesem is very willing to make new relationships within the Austin and Central Texas community. If anyone has any partnerships or any way they want to get involved with Camp Kesem, not only as a parent or a camper, CK is open to those relationships. That’s ultimately how CK grows their outreach each year and how they’re able to serve new camper families and new campers each summer, by establishing those connections and letting more people know about what Camp Kesem is and what they do. Brodi says they are totally open to meeting new people and making new connections with people in the cancer and Central Texas community, which is of high priority to them.

For us here at KikuPal, it is also a high priority to partner with non-profits and organizations that share a similar mission of making giving and receiving help and support easier and better for those who need it most. We take great pleasure in being able to share Camp Kesem and their story as well as partnering and serving the cancer community in Central Texas and beyond. We know organizations like theirs and ours are making a significant impact and difference in the lives of those affected by cancer and grief. And for us, that is why we love what we do.

Watch our full interview with Brodi and Juliana from Camp Kesem at University of Texas - Austin on our YouTube channel.