During the summer of 2017, more than 7,000 children attended over 100 weeklong sessions of Camp Kesem across the country. Originally established at Stanford University in 2000, today it is present in more than 40 states.
Camp Kesem is a student-run and student-led camp for kids whose parents have been affected by cancer.
The participants are treated to a free, weeklong camp near Yosemite National Park. It consists of an administration team of about 17 students with job titles like directors, operations and outreach, among others. All roles are carried out by teams of two.
“Everyone who goes to Camp Kesem knows what they’re going for,” said Christopher Rodriguez, a senior vocal performance major and one of the two operations coordinators.
Although Camp Kesem has only been present at Fresno State for five years, it continues to spark magic as the word “kesem” suggests in Hebrew.
“I felt I was changed after I went through Kesem because it becomes part of your life and family,” Rodriguez said. “Everyone just melts in the pot, and we all become the best of friends.”
Rodriguez’s dad, Christopher Briggs Rodriguez, died in April 2015 from a rare stomach cancer that was diagnosed in its late stages. He opted out of chemotherapy and died after about 45 days.
At the time, Rodriguez did not have a car and was only able to travel to his father’s home in Bakersfield about three times.
But the only thing he would do if he had a second chance with his dad would be to simply speak with him again.
“I wish that I could get a last chance to talk to him,” Rodriguez said. “How do you get 50 years of advice?”
Though Rodriguez was devastated, he functions best on a schedule and had to immediately get back in the flow of things to maintain his sanity. He was back in Fresno just one day after his father’s passing.
This experience has led Rodriguez to where he is now, helping children cope with similar experiences.
“Camp Kesem has changed who I am as a person completely,” Rodriguez said.
Camp Kesem is not reserved only to students whose parents have been affected by cancer, but is open to everyone. If you are a student, you qualify to be a counselor or part of the core team. Any Fresno State student may join.
“We are a group of college students that are driven to support kids through and beyond cancer,” said Greyson Canterbury, a junior Spanish major and co-director of Fresno State’s Camp Kesem chapter.
Besides being a student, a potential counselor must also be interviewed and then selected to become a part of the general body. There are also four to five training sessions for counselors, online and in-person, to prepare the individuals for Camp Kesem.
In general, there are about 35 counselors during camp. Each unit consists of six campers and three counselors. In addition to the counselors, the administration team is also present to ensure all activities run smoothly.
The session also requires two nurses, a mental health professional and a photographer/videographer. These are the only people that receive a stipend but, according to Rodriguez, they often volunteer their time.
“I think that’s one of the beautiful things about Kesem. You don’t have to have a parent who’s had cancer to know how important you are to the kids,” Rodriguez said.
Although Canterbury’s parents have not been affected by cancer, he knows what it feels like to be afraid.
“When I was in sixth grade, my mom went through an experience in the hospital where I didn’t get to see her for about a month. It was questionable whether or not she was going to live,” Canterbury said.
Through this experience, he is able to relate to the campers and support them through what might be one of the most terrifying times in their lives.
Camp Kesem runs on a tight schedule from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., Monday through Saturday. Last year, 60 kids attended, and the camp is hoping for 70 campers during the upcoming session in July 2019.
Currently, Camp Kesem is undergoing the process to permanently be housed at Camp Pacifica, just about 50 minutes north of Fresno.
“It’s literally the funnest five days you can pack into a five-day schedule,” Rodriguez said.
Yearly sessions come with a unique theme. Last year’s theme was Kesem in the USA, and every day’s activities related to that main idea. The theme for the upcoming session in 2019 is a surprise.
Throughout a typical day, the campers engage in activities such as tie-dye, arts and crafts, archery and rock climbing. Camp Kesem is also really big on camp songs.
Evening activities can vary from a talent show to a bonfire.
However, Rodriguez said that one of the most important things that happens during camp is called empowerment.
“We come together as campers and counselors, and we just talk. It becomes a safe zone of being able to talk about your experience — or anything you want,” Rodriguez said.
This chatting time usually occurs in the middle of the week. Last year, it was on Wednesday by the lake.
Empowerment is a safe time for the kids and counselors to speak about issues that may be more difficult to talk about; a time when there is no judgment, just support.
But this happens every day during camp as well, just in a smaller capacity. It’s called cabin chat.
“It becomes more personal between the counselors and the kids, and it’s very powerful to be part of,” Canterbury said.
Just before going to bed, counselors and campers engage in a conversation that can range from very silly to very serious.
But the most challenging part of Camp Kesem, according to Canterbury, is finding a time when 16 college students can meet.
Though participation may be time-consuming, it is rewarding, he said
“If you spend four hours doing something at Kesem, it doesn’t feel like four hours, because it’s worth it,” Canterbury said.
For Canterbury, Camp Kesem has solidified his career choice.
“I know that I want to continue for the rest of my life impacting the lives of children,” Canterbury said. In addition, he said, Camp Kesem has also made him a stronger leader.
Rodriguez lost his father when he was 18 years old. Though for him, it is impactful to see children as young as 6 years old experience such a tragedy.
“It has shown me, first off, the resiliency of children, but also that you can make a difference,” Rodriguez said.
Everyone who goes to camp is no longer the same person by the end of it. This may also be the reason why they choose a camp name for the week, and ultimately, they are addressed by that name.
Rodriguez chose the name Pascal, which is the name of the chameleon in the movie “Tangled.”
“I chose Pascal because in ‘Tangled’ he is silent. He doesn’t speak, but he has all this attitude and all the sass,” Rodriguez said. “Christopher can be himself, but at then end of the day, Pascal is the core and root of who I am.”
“Kesem is not just about camp, it’s an all year-round support,” Rodriguez said.
The organization also hosts events like Friends and Family Day, during which old and new campers can experience a mini version of the camp week.
More than just planning and organizing, every general body member also raises money to make the event happen.
During Giving Tuesday, the Fresno State team was able to raise just over $17,000 from donations.
Every general body member creates a fundraising page and a goal. They must also set a dare they will complete if they reach their goal.
Rodriguez’s personal goal was set at $1,500. He surpassed it, and therefore, he will be going skydiving.
Among Rodriguez’s donors were Fresno State professors, and even the dean of the College of Arts and Humanities.
Now, the team is anticipating its biggest fundraiser event, Make the Magic, that will take place in April 2019 at the Fort Washington Country Club.
The team hopes to raise $30,000.
“A lot of people believe that you as one person can’t make a difference. But when you get to Kesem and when you’re working throughout the year and you’re at camp, it shows you that you can make a difference,” Rodriguez said.
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