Camp Kesem. A nationwide community, driven by passionate college student leaders, that supports children through and beyond their parent’s cancer. It’s something described as “magical” by the children served and student leaders volunteering their time to make a difference.


Magical? It’s a word we use often in this organization, because it’s hard to put into words what this camp means to our campers, their families, and our student volunteers. Hard to describe, but I’ll do my best.

A parent’s cancer can be devastating for a family. Let me try that again. A parent’s cancer IS devastating for a family. The doctor visits, dreaded prognosis, chemotherapy, radiation, hair loss, surgeries, hospital bills… these are just some of the things a cancer patient must face in a fight for their life, a very scary and emotional fight. Many of us have thought about what this might mean for someone facing the fight, but what we sometimes forget is what this means for the rest of the family. It means that everything else is put on hold. For the foreseeable future, every family members’ time, thoughts, and energy is focused on their loved one.

Now let’s think, specifically, as to what this means for a child. When something like cancer happens, a person tends to think about the worst case scenario. It means that a child is thinking about a world without their parent by their side. Scared, sad, angry, alone. Going to school and having this thing that has consumed your life, your time, your emotions, and then not being able to share this with anyone because they just won’t understand. Now, dig deep. Dig really deep into a place no one else can find. This place is now home to the feelings of this vulnerable child. But this child won’t show it. Why? Simple. Because this cancer is not about them and their feelings. It’s about their parent, and that means putting yourself aside and being your strongest for your parent. It’s a courageous cape to wear, but one no child should ever have to put on.

This is a reality for the over 3 million children touched by a parent’s cancer. Our response to this reality: Camp Kesem. A place where a child no longer has to feel alone. A “magical” place where everyone understands what you’re going through, without you having to say a word. Children of all ages from all backgrounds in a setting where the focus is not on cancer, but on having fun. Singing songs, playing games, making friendship bracelets and sharing them with your new Camp Kesem friends. Friends who understand. Friends who don’t judge, point fingers, make fun, but genuine friends who can relate and just want to have fun again. This is where the “magic” happens. It happens in the bonds formed between children touched by a parent’s cancer, and also in the bonds formed with their caring counselors. Counselors willing to work tirelessly, year-round, while balancing their academic, extracurricular, and personal responsibilities just to put on one week of camp, for free, for these brave children. How beautiful is that? It’s quite the formula, and one that’s worked for years as we continue to serve thousands of children touched by a parent’s cancer.

Now where does this “magic” actually happen? Among the many campsites around the nation, a couple Camp Kesem chapters have found a very special home at JCC Rainbow Day Camp in Fredonia, Wisconsin. At the JCC RDC, Lenny and his wonderful team go above and beyond to provide the best activities, support, and, most importantly, the smiles to make every child feel at home. Every request made to Lenny from a Kesem student leader is met with a smile and a “let’s make it happen” mentality. It makes the Kesem experience all the more special when you have someone who wants to help you make it happen, as much as Lenny and his team do. You see, Lenny understands Kesem. He understands, because he’s gone through what the parents of these Kesem children have gone through. And Lenny’s daughter, Shelby, now Assistant Director at JCC RDC, is a former counselor and student leader with Camp Kesem. This ability to relate to the children and their families, to truly understand the mission, has created a home for Camp Kesem at  JCC Rainbow Day Camp. A home that hundreds of children rush to every summer.

It’s because of what I just described, that in the midst of the most horrific thing a child can face, that these children can smile again. Because they can come to Camp Kesem and know they’ll be met with an energized and caring counselor team, new-found Kesem friends and peers who can relate to their experiences, and a JCC Rainbow Day Camp staff who reminds them to “keep smiling!”

This is the “magic” of Camp Kesem.


Marty “Goofy” Shamon