UT Students Bring Camp Kesem to Toledo: Summer camp provides support for children with parents affected by cancer

Registration is now underway for a summer camp that provides support to children with parents affected by cancer in the Toledo area.

The free camp is sponsored by Camp Kesem, a national program serving children ages 6-18 through chapters based at colleges and universities across the country. University of Toledo students Morgan Zickes and Rachel George led the effort to bring Camp Kesem to UT last year, and this summer’s camp will be the first offered by the local chapter.

Zickes attended Camp Kesem at The University of Notre Dame as a child and had such a positive experience that she wanted to bring the opportunity to children in the Toledo area. “It really had an impact on me and I wanted to be able to pay it forward to kids directly in my community that were in the same exact situation that I was,” says Zickes. “It’s a really special organization.”

Virtual camp
Zickes was 13 years old when her father died of pancreatic cancer in 2013. The rising college senior now serves as one of the outreach coordinators for Camp Kesem, which is largely staffed by trained college student volunteers.

While Camp Kesem is normally held as a weeklong sleep away camp, this year’s programming is to be offered online Aug. 1-6 due to the ongoing pandemic. Participants will receive a package with all the materials they need for the week and be invited to tune in to virtual programming to engage with counselors and their peers each day.

Zickes served as a counselor for a virtual camp that was offered through another chapter last year and says campers still found the programming to be beneficial and impactful. “The kids that participated really did give us good feedback and got a lot out of it, even though it was a little bit different,” she says.

Connecting kids with a supportive community
Founded at Stanford University in 2000, Camp Kesem has grown to become the largest national organization dedicated to supporting children impacted by a parent’s cancer. All programs are offered at no cost to families. In addition to the summer camp, staff members offer year-round support to children through and beyond their parent’s cancer.

According to the Camp Kesem website, an estimated population of more than 5 million children in the United States have lost a parent to cancer, have a parent undergoing cancer treatment or have a parent who is a cancer survivor.

“Kesem” is a Hebrew word meaning “magic,” and the name reflects “kind of an indescribable thing that happens at camp,” says Zickes.

“I’m probably the poster child for how successful this programming is,” says Zickes. She relates that when she arrived at camp for the first time, she didn’t want to talk with anybody and thought she could handle everything on her own.  Camp Kesem gave her a supportive community of peers who understood what she was going through.

“A lot of the kids kind of feel that sort of isolation and disconnectedness from their peers because they can’t relate to what you’re going through,” she explains. Many children with parents affected by cancer find themselves taking on adult roles at a young age and lack a support network. Camp Kesem has been shown to improve self esteem and communication skills in the youth who attend, and many campers return year after year.

“It’s really kind of about giving you a childhood back, in some sense, and surrounding you with people that know what you’re going through without you having to explain it,” says Zickes.

To register a camper or to learn more about year-round support programming offered by Camp Kesem, visit www.campkesem.org. You can also follow the UT Chapter on Facebook and Instagram.