May 16, 2018

Annual Week of Summer Camp Helps Children of Ailing Parents

RELIEF FROM GRIEF: Friendships were renewed at a recent Friends and Family Day held by the Princeton University chapter of Camp Kesem, which helps children with a parent suffering from cancer. The event was held on the campus for the first time as part of an effort to attract more students to participate in the all-volunteer organization.

By Anne Levin

Witnessing a parent’s fight with cancer can be devastating for a child, even when the battle against the disease is ultimately won. Giving kids a break from their worries and grief is the goal of Camp Kesem, a nationwide organization of college students that sponsors week-long summer programs at camps and camp sites throughout the nation.

Princeton University established a Camp Kesem chapter four years ago. Earlier this month, the students held a Friends and Family Day in front of Frist Campus Center, drawing some 80 visitors to an event described by sophomore Ashley Dong, whose camp name is “Cloud,” as “a sort of reunion.” Dong is one of the chapter’s outreach coordinators.

“It was essentially a snapshot of a day at camp, and like camp this summer, it was space-themed,” Dong said of the event which included a “zero-gravity” moon bounce, build-your-own space station, astronaut suit fashion show, and face painting. “We finished off the event with the traditional Closing Circle, where everyone gets together in a circle and sings the Camp Kesem song. The kids build incredible friendships over camp in the summer but often don’t get the chance to see one another afterward, so Friends and Family Day primarily functions as a day to bring together old and new friends.”

This was the first time the Princeton chapter held the twice-a-semester event on the campus. “We wanted to open it up to students who might want to join,” Dong said.

This year’s camp is August 19-24, at Johnsonburg Camp and Retreat Center in Warren County. The kids will live in cabins and spend their days rock-climbing, canoeing, doing arts and crafts, and other traditional camp activities. But there is time set aside for them to express their feelings.

“It’s not just fun and games, though that is the focus,” said Dong. “There is a special day during the week where kids can share their experiences. It can get pretty sad. Even the counselors have a hard time holding back the tears. But this is an opportunity for the kids to be confident in their life experiences and to share them, while realizing they don’t have to be in pain. They can still have fun and be a kid.”

Last year, 35 children attended the week-long camp. This year, 50 are enrolled. That means more money is needed. The organization is “100 percent donation based,” said Dong. “And everyone involved is a volunteer.”

According to the Camp Kesem website, some 4,500 college students are involved with 105 chapters in 40 states. “We work with the parents as well, providing year-round support,” Dong said of the Princeton chapter. “This is a very niche population for a camp. The kids could have lost a parent, or have a parent who is going through cancer. The whole idea of camp is that this is sort of an oasis. This is a place where they can come and forget about the troubles of home.”

Volunteers adhere to a national standard program for counselors. “We explore how to talk about grief,” said Dong. “Dealing with kids who have gone through this experience can be tough. Quite a few of the counselors have actually gone through it, but not all. And quite a few of the student volunteers are pre-med.”

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