College students run summer camp for children whose parents have cancer

Camp Kesem campers and counselors gather for a photo. The camp’s Utah Valley chapter started with 12 campers in 2008 and is expected to host at least 260 campers this summer. (Camp Kesem)

Camp Kesem is a summer camp that serves children who have been impacted by a parent’s cancer. Camp leaders say they want to give the kids a place to play and relax.

The camp was founded in 2000 at Stanford University and currently has 116 chapters in 42 states. Each chapter hosts fundraisers to help cover camp costs. All the chapters in Camp Kessem are run by students in various colleges and universities, and one main advisory board oversees all operations.

BYU student Joslyn Empey is a Make the Magic coordinator for Camp Kesem. Make the Magic is an annual gala used to raise funds to allow the chapters to host a summer camp at no costs for the children and their families.

According to Empey, the camp’s Utah Valley chapter started with 12 campers over a single week-long period in 2008. Empey said the camp is expected to host at least 260 kids over two week-long periods this upcoming summer.

Joslyn Empey is covered in paint after a participating in a paint battle with Kesem campers. (Kylee Laperyouse)

”We usually have a very full wait list, which is hard, but really good because that means we have people who need it,” Empey said.

Empey heard about the camp through a friend and said she was interested in finding a way to get involved. She got the chance through a Tinder date who was involved with Camp Kesem and asked her if she would like to attend a meeting. Empey said she accepted the invitation and that she was excited to work for the camp.

“Things didn’t work out with him, which is fine, but Kesem kind of stuck,” Empey said

Michelle Mayer is a former Camp Kesem camper who now serves as the co-director of the Utah Valley chapter.

Mayer said gala sponsors vary year to year and that the Utah Valley chapter has several Camp Kesem alumni who bring connections to the camp.

“This year we worked with Chipotle, actually. We had a fundraiser with them to help with making the event possible,” Mayer said.

Kaylee Smedley works as an outreach coordinator for the Utah Valley chapter. She said she learned about Kesem from a neighbor when she was growing up.

Smedley said she didn’t really understand everything involved with Camp Kesem but knew the camp needed volunteers.

Michelle Mayer connects with several campers because of her experience attending Camp Kesem. (Kylee Lapeyrouse)

“I absolutely fell in love with the kids and the program and knew I had to make it a permanent part of my life. I remember driving home from camp heartbroken when the week was over,” Smedley said.

Smedley’s work involves staying in contact throughout the year with the families and kids by sending birthday cards to each kid and email updates about the camp. The outreach department also works with local hospitals and oncology units to find the campers, along with the help of Camp Kesem alumni.

“We try not to force them to do anything, because they already have to be forced into things they don’t want to do at home. At camp it’s like, ‘Whatever you want to do, let’s do it,’” Empey said.

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