April 2023

Making Magic at Camp Kesem

My father sadly passed away when I was 7 years old. My family had been uprooted from our home in Mexico and pulled back to America for a more advanced treatment for my dad’s cancer. He fought for four long years. In the wake of his death, I refused to speak of him or his suffering. It was just too painful to relive.

Eventually, my mom persuaded me to attend a program called Camp Kesem. Adding to the preexisting dozens of locations across the USA, the first chapter of UC Santa Cruz Camp Kesem opened in 2014.
This amazing non-profit program is run by passionate, volunteering university students, and among other year-round services they provide, their flagship is a free week at camp for kids affected by their parent’s cancer.

Offering a safe space for children to have creative fun within a supportive community, the program trains its friendly counselors to encourage emotional coping skills, and give kids a chance to escape or express their sadness at facing the challenges of a parent’s cancer. Thanks to my mom, I was the very first child (under protest) to sign up for UC Santa Cruz’s program!

I say, ‘under protest’ as frankly, Camp Kesem at first, sounded like a depressing place to me: sad kids rueing their parent’s cancer or lamenting their loss. However, this initial assumption could not have been more wrong.

This camp turned out to be a remarkable home for children left behind by a parent’s cancer; a place to not only rejoice in life but in small remembrances of my father. A joyous place, where the horrors of cancer were inherently understood but temporarily suspended in favor of carefree, healing fun. It was a life-changing experience for me.

Kesem, which gets its name from the Hebrew word ‘magic’, is in so many ways a magical world all of its own, with its own lores and fantasies to pair. No one goes by their real name, instead donning quirky monikers such as Snickers, Flame, Froggy, or Mosaic. We have our own distinctive camp songs and fun theme parties and nightly Cabin Chats. The point is not to dwell on cancer, but to have fun.

My first counselors, a group of incredible, empathetic, impassioned UCSC students, created our camp to be the ultimate sanctuary, cultivating a safe haven to give us campers space to be silly kids, while also respecting the significance of our experiences and family life. Many embodied this dichotomy; many of them had a personal family history with cancer in some way. After my first camp session, I was hooked!
I attended camp every year, and by my teens, I was eager to give back. I spoke at functions to raise awareness and encourage donations while also helping to organize charity events. Later, I became an assistant camp counselor and aided in camp events.

Through these activities, I learned not only organizational and interpersonal skills and the gratification of paying it forward but how creating a community space with caring people can spark unparalleled cheer during dark periods.

Kesem not only enabled me to process the loss of my father but it ignited in me a flame of social responsibility, inspiring me to utilize my voice for change.

As soon as I arrived at UC Berkeley to start as an undergrad, I made it my first priority to sign up as a volunteer counselor with UC Berkeley Camp Kesem. After two semesters of counselor training and fundraising, this summer will be my first camp experience as a counselor.

As the first organization I felt compelled to support, the magic of Camp Kesem changed me for life and empowered me to know that not only is there solace in mutual experiences and understanding, but how community aid foundations can provide essential support to those in need.

Elise Cline is a 20 year old under-graduate student who transferred from Cabrillo College to UC Berkeley, majoring in Political Science and minoring in Journalism and Disability Studies.

UC Santa Cruz is holding its annual Camp Kesem ‘Make the Magic’ fundraising evening on Saturday April 15th at 5pm at Seascape Golf Club. Please support this amazing non-profit charity by reserving your tickets in advance at donate.kesem.org/event/camp-kesem-at-uc-santa-cruz-make-the-magic-fy-2023/e457727 Donations for Camp Kesem at UCSC can also be made by using this link. They rely completely on donations to fund these life changing camp experiences. Please also pass this information onto any other parent suffering from cancer who can offer their child, 6 – 18 years old, the opportunity to experience this wonderful free camp. Kesem also provides year-round services including care packages and local gatherings, please email [email protected] for full details. Children can be signed up for July 9-14 session at www.kesem.org.

One Comment

  • Eric Stricker

    Wonderful to hear about the tremendously positive impact that Camp Kesem has had on Elise’s life, as well as the countless lives of other young people who’ve lost a family member to cancer. The article also helps bring home another important point: “listen to mama”!

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