Students Make Summer 'Magic'

Camp Kesem marks 10 years of service.

May/June 2010

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Students Make Summer 'Magic'

Courtesy Camp Kesem (3)

When high school senior Matt Applesmith was first asked to consider spending a week of his summer in the Santa Cruz Mountains at a place called Camp Kesem, he flatly rejected the idea.Although his two younger brothers were going to give it a chance, Applesmith decided he didn't need a pervasive reminder of his mother's battle with breast cancer.

Every Camp Kesem kid can identify with Applesmith's situation to some degree. Though diverse in age, ethnicity and just about every other definable trait, the campers have one thing in common: a parent who has had cancer.

The Kesem program, run by 60 to 70 Stanford student volunteers, was the brainchild of four undergraduates a decade ago. Seeing that children of local cancer patients lacked a common outlet for coping with their experiences, they teamed up with Hillel, Stanford's Jewish community center, to hatch a solution. Camp Kesem opened its doors to 37 campers in the summer of 2001, free of charge. Since then, the program has blossomed into a large-scale organization with 22 different college chapters across the country. Donations fund its operations.

The tightly knit Stanford staff convenes regularly to plow through an agenda that includes hiring and training new staffers—and, lately, to plan the camp's 10-year anniversary celebration, scheduled for May 16. While hammering out administrative details, they address one another using pet names like "Maverick," "Maple," "Buckwheat" and "Raja." Their yearlong work culminates in one summer week, when counselors will guide more than 120 kids through intensive daily schedules as seamlessly as possible. The camp serves children who will enter grades 2 through 9 the following fall and offers an outdoor leadership program for kids entering grades 10 and 11.

"To an extent, I can only plan so much," says programming coordinator Britt "Twist" Kovachevich, '09, MA '09. "My backup-backup plan is that we have 70 incredible counselors that are going to work one way or another."

As its name suggests, however, Camp Kesem has a way of surpassing ordinary expectations. In Hebrew, kesem means "magic"—a word that seems to belie the experience that brings Kesem kids together. But as one senior coordinator, Lyndsay "Checkers" Vogel, '10, puts it, "Cancer is the reason why we're all there, but it's not what defines the experience at camp."

Judging from overwhelmingly positive reviews by campers and counselors, most of whom become returnees, what does define the camp experience is an extraordinary collective effervescence. After a week of shuffling between craft projects, outdoor adventures, evening performances and sporting events, campers depart feeling equal parts exhausted and exhilarated, but a bit more grown up than they were the week before.

Sarah "Rafiki" Kleinman, who served as a Kesem counselor for two years, remembers that maturing process vividly. Though cancer isn't usually a subject brought up by counselors until the memorial service held one day during the program, Kleinman, '08, MA '08, advised a group of girls who were eager to discuss the subject during evening cabin chats. "They wanted to ask each other things like, 'if you could say one more thing to your mom and dad, what would it be?'" she recalls. "I had never had to be that sort of mentor and emotional backbone for someone."

Applesmith, who eventually changed his mind about the camp, attended the last four summers before his high school graduation. Now that he's applying to college, he's thinking about becoming a Kesem counselor himself—but he still misses being a participant.

"Everything flowed—we laughed, we cried. I felt so comfortable in front of that group of people," he says. "Cancer wasn't the shadow that hung over us—it was just something that we all had in common."

AIMEE MILES, ’10, is an intern at Stanford.

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