When Wendy Fang talks about her expectations for the first Stony Brook University Camp Kesem, a weeklong getaway for children who have had parents who struggled with cancer, she describes the impact the disease can have, even on adults.
“My mom in particular had her father pass away, but she was much older,” Fang said in a recent interview. “But even with that age group as an adult, you can still see the impact. So I can only imagine what it feels like for kids at six to 16.”
Fang, 20, a rising senior at Stony Brook University, will be one of 23 counselors and four administrators creating a week, from Aug. 10-15, of fun and memories for 50 to 60 Long Island children, ages six to 16. Kesem campers will be at Camp Candlewood on a lake in New Fairfield, Connecticut, just over the New York line.
The Camp Kesem website explains that children of cancer patients are often overlooked and cannot receive much attention, so the counselors here help give them the attention they need with a 3:1 camper to counselor ratio. The Stony Brook campers are the children of people being treated for cancer at Stony Brook University Hospital, as well as other medical centers throughout Long Island.
During that week, Fang, a biology major who is on a pre-dental track, will be known as Sunshine. Counselors as well as campers pick a fanciful name for themselves for use during the week to leave the reality of home behind.
Camp Kesem was started in 2001 through a Hillel organization at Stanford University in California. Although Hillel is a Jewish organization, the camp is secular, serving children from all walks of life.
This camp is nonprofit and the campers come for free, which means the counselors must fundraise throughout the year for things such as food, games, and equipment. The idea for the camp came from a therapist who works with the families of cancer patients at Stony Brook University Hospital who suggested Camp Kesem as a project.
With her encouragement in 2013, a group of students at Stony Brook University applied for and won a $10,000 grant from the Livestrong Foundation, which provides support for people affected by cancer.
The name Kesem comes from the Hebrew word for magic.
“Camp Kesem is magic, and I really believe in that because in a sense we are kind of bringing magic to these children’s lives,” said student counselor Alex Fu, a rising senior who will be known as Snap.
During the year, the counselors have prepared for the week in several seven-hour training sessions on lighthearted things like camp songs, camp games and camp cheers, as well as the more serious issues that can confront this group of kids, like cutting, eating disorders, child abuse and suicide.
Counselor Ruchi Shah, 20, a rising junior, will be known as Giggles. Shah is known around campus as that woman who developed a mosquito repellant that is inexpensive and can help fight malaria in tropical zones.
Shah now works in a cervical cancer lab, and has come to see the value of experiences like Camp Kesem.
“Sometimes we focus so much on the cancer patients themselves that we forget about the family members and how they are impacted,” she said in an interview. “So, Camp Kesem is a phenomenal opportunity for kids to have fun and forget their parents have cancer.”
The counselors keep the magic alive by jam-packing the week with fun activities with the kids. This camp may be for children with struggles at home, but it is meant to be fun, not therapeutic.
“I hope the kids take away from it, really learning that even though they have a hard situation at home, that it’s OK for them to let go and have fun and have a week of their summer just being kids” said counselor Brittany Stapelfeld, also a rising senior at Stony Brook.
The first day of camp, will be Fang’s 21st birthday, as well as her first day as a counselor at Camp Kesem.
“There’s a lot that goes into the magic that is Camp Kesem,” says Fang, who has taken the training. “It’s been a difficult journey, but it’s definitely been very rewarding.”