Saturday, August 29, 2015

Kesem means Magic.

Being a parent with cancer is tough.  It takes the resources of an entire village to make it through brutal treatments and financial devastation.  But through all of that mayhem, it's the littlest members of the tribe who may suffer the most.

Children with parents who have cancer are forced to grow up too fast.  They experience fears and realities that no child should.  Heck - no grown up should.  And because children may be afraid to cause more stress for their already stressed-to-the-max family, these fears may go unspoken - only to reemerge at unexpected times in the future.

This was taken the summer of 2012 - their first
time at Camp Kesem (and our very first weekend with Finn)
Because that's what happens when you don't deal with difficult stuff.  The emotions swallowed down into the depths of your psyche will eventually need to be puked up again - like a cat with a hairball. And frankly, I don't want my kids to have emotional hairballs.

So, I do what any good mom would in this circumstance - I send my kids to camp.

Now this is not just any-ole'-camp. Camp Kesem is a national organization which focuses on supporting children who have a parent affected by cancer - an often overlooked population in need of TLC.  These week-long, non-denominational camp experiences are provided free of charge to the campers and run by uber-dedicated college students around the country.  And though trained staff are on hand to deal with emotional hairballs that come up - the goal is to provide a safe place for kids to just be kids.

In short, Camp Kesem provides a jam-packed, amazing week of childhood spent with others who "get it".  For families like mine, it is Kid-topia.
Home away from home.

In fact, even the name "Kesem" was chosen by the Stanford University students who started the program in 2000 because it means "magic" in Hebrew.   That was their goal - to provide a magical experience for these children and their families.

All these years later, Camp Kesem certainly lives up to its name.

What's more, this program provides the college student counselors - many of whom have personal ties to cancer - with solid leadership, fund-raising and project management skills as well as a boat load of feel-good stories that look great on a resume but even better on a bucket list.  In short, Camp Kesem is a goodie - worthy of philanthropy dollars if you have 'em and word-of-mouth if you know of families who may benefit.

Herding Cats - Photo credit Camp Kesem UW
Still can't wrap your head around what goes on there?  Here's what camp is like from a parent perspective.

Our kids attend Camp Kesem UW, which takes place at a picturesque site near Cle Elum (about 4 hours from our home but well worth the drive).  However there are more than 62 chapters across the country. (Find a Camp Kesem chapter near you here.)

With more than 90 kids in attendance this year, camp check in (which can take place at either the UW campus or at the camp depending on preference) can feel a little like "herding cats" as the kids recognize friends, hug their favorite counselors and compare cabin notes - all the while hauling around bedding and luggage approximately twice their weight.  But once contact information is verified, medications are collected and luggage is loaded up on the bus, the hive begins to calm down a bit.
This year's photo - a little taller and different hat logo.

Next comes name selection.  All counselors and kids choose a name for themselves which will be their camp persona for the entire week.  This is a brilliant move, in my mind, because choosing a new name effectively allows these kids the ability to shed "real life" and step into the camp world.  This year my not-so-littles dubbed themselves Hershey's and Ace but in years past we've had a Pancakes, Ninja and TRex.

Finally, I finish dropping the kids off (once they start giving me the "Mooooom are you seriously still here" look), listen to a David Sedaris audio book on the way home, cry a little about how grown up my kids are and then spend the entire week stalking Camp Kesem UW's Facebook site hoping to catch a glimpse of what my kids are up to.  (Also I go on lots of guilt-free dates with hunky hubby - there are many perks to this program!)

Meanwhile, the kids are up to their eyeballs in kid-tastic events that include archery (T got "about 10
Hersheys and crew.
Photo Credit Camp Kesem UW
bulls eyes"), swimming (both passed their "deep-end" swimming test), prank wars (M packed an entire roll of saran wrap this year - I didn't even question it), tie-dying, hikes and various shenanigans lead by the seemingly tireless counselors with quirky names of their own such as Scout, Marshmallow, Squid and Wonderbread.

A perennial favorite for my kiddos is "Messy Olympics".  Each year, the campers are instructed to bring an outfit that can get messy absolutely destroyed - and it will be.  In fact, this year's inspired Messy Olympic line-up may as well have been thought up by sadistic Oxi-clean execs -  Paint Twister, Pancake Batter and Syrup Slip-and-Slide, Shaving Cream and Flour Fights, as well as something involving butter and sticking cheerios to faces.  All of this culminated with a giant food fight with the game "left overs" followed by a group picture and good old-fashioned hose down.

Once the dust (and flour) settles, the kids look like cereal-encrusted Braveheart extras - but are
I'm not entirely sure my kids are in this photo
but I think it captures Messy Olympics nicely.
Photo credit Camp Kesem UW
grinning from ear-to-ear.

There's also an "Empowerment Night" where the kids are encouraged to safely share with their cabin-mates and support each other as they talk about their experiences with cancer.  This powerful night helps teach these kids to trust others, to express empathy and to talk about their feelings - lessons that will help them long after their days of camp are done.

At the end of the week, our kids are finally extracted collected and they spend the next few weeks speaking in camp code, singing songs and reminiscing about the adventures they have shared.  Then school starts up and the busy business of the year sucks us under for a while.

Finn's spot on the couch while the kids are at camp.
But typically before the first frost the kids begin their countdown of the days before Camp Kesem starts up again.

And I can't say I blame them - Kesem is magic.

In fact, the only one who could possibly have a negative thing to say about Camp Kesem is Finn.

But that's only because he wishes he could go too.

(*Note:  Camp Kesem is able to accomplish all this magic because of generous donations and year-round fund raisers.  Go to to learn more about this amazing program and how you can help keep the magic flowing!)