Camp Kesem offers children coping with a parent’s cancer a chance to ‘be a kid’ for a week

Camp Kesem participants take part in an outdoor activity shortly after arriving at camp, Tooele County, Utah, July 9, 2018 | Photo courtesy of Camp Kesem, St. George News

CEDAR CITY — Dozens of children are spending the week at Camp Kesem, an annual retreat for kids whose lives have been touched by a parent’s or another family member’s struggle with cancer.

Camp Kesem participant “Lily Bug” carries sleeping bag after saying goodbye to her mother, as she prepares to board bus and leave for camp, Cedar City, Utah, July 9, 2018 | Photo by Jeff Richards, St. George News

Monday morning at the Southern Utah University campus, a charter bus prepared to transport the kids, ranging in age from 6 to 17, to the place that will be their home until Saturday: Camp Wapiti in Tooele County’s Settlement Canyon.

As the students finished checking in and hugged their family members goodbye , they were greeted by cheerful camp counselors who talked about the experiences that they could look forward to over the next several days.

One young girl, nicknamed “Lily Bug,” is a student at Cedar’s East Elementary School. She said she is going to Camp Kesem for the first time. Lily’s mother, in her mid-40s, was diagnosed with cancer in her leg last fall and is nearing the end of a round of chemotherapy treatments. Both mother and daughter said they were grateful for the opportunity.

“They get to be kids for a week or at least that’s what we’re hoping for,” said Ashlyn Pace, a development coordinator for the camp. “I just think that that’s so cool that we can help them to be a normal kid for even if it’s just for a week.”

Pace, who’s working as a counselor at the camp for the first time this year, said she first heard about it in her psychology class at SUU.

L-R: Southern Utah University Camp Kesem counselors Sierra Jensen, Cason Patterson and Ashlyn Pace during a pre-camp interview, Cedar City, Utah, June 14, 2018 | Photo by Jeff Richards, St. George News

“For a long time I wanted to help kids in hospitals to deal with chronic illnesses and trauma or death of family members because when I was a kid, I was a sick kid so I understand how stressful it can be,” Pace said. “My mom was a nurse, so I had that support, and I wanted to be that for other people.”

Pace, like all Camp Kesem participants, uses a self-chosen nickname almost exclusively throughout the weeklong event. Her camp name is “Poppy.”

“At camp the kids get to come and bond and connect like new family members with people who know exactly what they’re going through,” Pace said.

Fellow counselor Cason Patterson, whose camp name is “Rust,” said he’s back looking forward to his second year at Camp Kesem.

“I just loved it,” he said of his experience last year. “It’s something you look forward to every summer.”

Patterson called the Camp Kesem experience “therapeutic” for participants and counselors alike.

“Their peers don’t really understand what they’re going through until you bring them together in a group. Then it’s easier for them to relate and understand and put an arm around (each other),” he said. “It’s incredible how strong they are when they’re all together.”

“They realize that here, ‘I’m glad I’m not alone. I’m not the only one that has to go through this,’” Patterson added.

Camp Kesem participants take part in an outdoor activity shortly after arriving at camp, Tooele County, Utah, July 9, 2018 | Photo courtesy of Camp Kesem, St. George News

Camp co-director Sierra Jensen, also known as “Roo,” is an SUU student from South Jordan. She said she first got involved with Camp Kesem because of her own mother’s battle with cancer.

Camp Kesem, which began in 2000 at Stanford University in California, now has chapters in many states. The organization’s stated purpose is to be “a child’s friend through and beyond a parent’s cancer.” It derives its name “kesem” from the Hebrew word for “magic,” referring to the goal of bringing “magic” to families coping with cancer.

SUU’s chapter began several years ago, Jensen said.

“Our first camp (in Utah) was in 2012, when we had about 24 campers,” she said, “This year we have 115, so we’ve grown quite a bit.”

A little more than half of the 115 total campers are from Southern Utah (Iron and Washington counties), she said, adding that most of the remaining participants are from the northern parts of the state.

A few of the planned activities at Utah’s Camp Kesem this week include water games, a ropes course and a “messy Olympics,” she said.

“We also have a empowerment ceremony, which is like the one time the week aside from the cabin chat where we really address cancer,” Jensen said. “This is just a time when we all get in a huge group and we talk about what’s going on.”

“It really connects them, I think,” Jensen added. “Everyone loves it.”

SUU Camp Kesem officials said they are grateful for the various fundraising efforts that have helped raise money to help send children to the camp each year. On March 24 at Cedar City’s Heritage Hall, the Pink Tea of Southern Utah raised more than $10,000, enough to send two dozen local children for free to Camp Kesem. The event was chaired by Cedar City Hospital nurse administrator Cyndi Wallace and presented by the Moms Club of Iron County. In addition, Camp Kesem held its own “Make the Magic” event in May, which generated another $16,000 in donations, and the Larry H. Miller Charities contributed another $5,000 in June.

To follow this week’s action on social media, check out the SUU Camp Kesem Facebook and Instagram pages, or visit the main SUU Camp Kesem website.

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Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2018, all rights reserved.

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