For many people, coping with the fact that a loved one has just been diagnosed with cancer or has passed away from cancer can be draining.
But a group of Richmond students works to bring hope, smiles and magic back to dozens of children by fundraising to send the children of parents who have or have had cancer to a week-long sleepaway camp, for free.
Camp Kesem is a national organization with 24 chapters across the United States that was founded at Stanford University in 2000. The original group consisted of members of Hillel at Stanford, a Jewish college campus organization with chapters around the world.
They chose the word Kesem because it means "magic" in Hebrew.
Though there is no religious affiliation with Camp Kesem, Richmond chapter co-chairwoman Kristen Qutub said that the goal of the organization was to make the magic for the campers who had endured these hardships.
"In doing that, we have the magic that they give us back," she said.
The process of starting a chapter of Camp Kesem required time, dedication and funding before children could have an opportunity to attend the camp. Fundraising chairwoman Kara Finzel said the Richmond chapter began mobilizing during the spring of 2008.
"One of my biology professors from freshman year, Dr. Lessem, heard of Camp Kesem from another school, and wanted to get it started, so she started recruiting people to get involved," Finzel said.
"All of spring 2008 and the school year of 2009 we planned and raised funds for our first summer of camp in 2009, when we had 20 campers," she said.
Paula Lessem, director of biology, is the faculty adviser for the Richmond chapter of Camp Kesem.
"I am very proud of this group of students," she said. "The organization is totally student-run, and their dedication and enthusiasm surrounding the cause is outstanding. This is an amazing group of young people."
Co-chair woman Kelly Larsen said that children aged six to 13 attend Camp Kesem. The Richmond group was looking to add a teen program next year, extending the age of campers to ages six to 18, she said.
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This year's Camp Kesem was held at Westview on the James in Goochland, Va., and it ran from Aug. 14 to Aug. 19. It was the second summer that the Richmond chapter held a camp.
Larsen said campers could do a variety of activities, ranging from the traditional summer camp classics such as swimming, archery, arts and crafts, color wars and scavenger hunts.
But this year, the Richmond counselors opted to add a coping and empowerment session to help the campers realize that they are all feeling similar emotions.
"It gave the kids the chance to open up and share why they came to camp, favorite memories with family and coping tips," Larsen said.
Qutub also said that the ceremony helped the campers learn how to cope and that it was very successful.
"Last year, we found out that a lot of the kids didn't even realize that all of the other kids at camp had parents with cancer, so this year it was more open and we think they bonded more by realizing that they could talk to these kids," she said.
When the group is not splashing around in the cool lake waters under the hot August sun, tie-dying rainbow-colored T-shirts with the campers or reflecting on powerful moments and memories to help the campers manage their feelings about cancer, the students are working full-time on fundraising.
"Over the past few years, we have done a lot of grant-writing to help fund the cost of camp," Finzel said. "We also appeal to local businesses and have profit-shares at places such as City Limit, Cheeburger Cheeburger. We have also sold cups and shot glasses for Pig Roast."
Finzel said that the organization's first profit-share of this school year was at City Limit on Sept. 2.
Finzel also said that the group sold pizzas at the fraternity lodges on Sept. 10. She said that the next profit share is still in the planning stage, but it will probably be in early October.
Qutub said the City Limit profit share on Sept. 2 was very successful, bringing in $456 for the cause.
Another new fundraising event the group has planned for later in the year is a program called Make the Magic, Larsen said.
"It will be a time where we share the campers' and counselors' stories with the community to try to get them to understand how important the camp is for these kids, to have them realize that what they are donating to is a great cause," she said.
The average cost to send a child to Camp Kesem is $880 per camper, Qutub said. The group raised over $20,000 last year to send 35 children to camp this year.
"The families don't pay a penny," she said. "The camp is free to them and we sponsor two reunions, one in the fall and one in the spring for families to reconnect, which is also free."
Qutub said the group was always looking for more members and volunteers to front the four committees.
The four committees that make up Camp Kesem are fundraising, student support, administration and camp programming and camper care.
"The easiest way for someone to get involved is to join one of our committees to help prepare for camp 2011," she said.
Larsen said it was a lot of work, but certainly rewarding.
"Our goal for the kids has always been to make sure they have a fun-filled and worry-free week so they can just be a kid and get the attention they need that is often lost when dealing with a sick parent," she said.
Finzel also said that this group of campers was often overlooked.
"These kids don't often get the attention that they need since they aren't actually ill, but they still have emotional needs," she said.
The Richmond students of Camp Kesem instill hope into the campers during tough times, igniting a spark that helps bring magic back into their lives.
The group hopes to raise $30,000 this year to bring even more magic to children with parents who have or have passed away from cancer.
Even if it is one week at summer camp, it is a chance to just be a kid and to show off a toothy grin while zip-lining down into the cool lake on a hot summer day.
Contact staff writer Amelia Vogler at email@example.com
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