Camp Kesem volunteers support children of parents with cancer

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Emma Breckon, Alexi Fernandez, Lucy Mautz and Ashlynn Hall were some of the Kesem staff members who spoke at the nonprofit’s general body meeting. These college students have worked hard to serve families affected by cancer. (Photo by Hannah McKinlay)

The Utah Valley chapter of the nationwide non-profit organization Kesem hosted a general body meeting Jan. 20 to inform new and old volunteers about Kesem’s mission and how they can help.

Kesem has served children of parents with cancer for 22 years, primarily with their annual weeklong sleepaway summer camp. Their mission, according to their website, is to “support these children through and beyond their parent’s cancer with free, fun-filled creative programs and a lasting community.”

The Utah Valley chapter’s leadership, made up of passionate college students, led the meeting. They shared a promotional video displaying the camp’s carefree environment, gave important dates, answered questions and spoke about their own experiences at camp.

Among the Kesem leaders was the chapter’s co-director Lucy Mautz, a BYU student. Mautz started attending Camp Kesem at age 11, returning every year until she was 18.

She talked about the two main purposes of Camp Kesem. “Half of it is making connections with kids that are going through the same thing, but then the other half is just having it be an escape from home,” she said.

Being the oldest daughter in her family, Mautz often had to assume the role of “mini-mom” as her mother fought breast cancer. 

“I was changing my baby sister’s diapers and making bottles and helping my brother with homework,” she said. “So it was nice to have a week every summer where I’m not responsible for anything but myself and having fun. That escape every year was life-changing.”

New and old volunteers listen to the Kesem info session. The friendly reunion of returning volunteers exhibits the strong bonds made at camp. (Hannah McKinlay)

Volunteers at Kesem act as camp counselors who are responsible for facilitating this kind of environment. BYU student Alexi Fernandez, a former counselor, emphasized the importance of letting the children make self-discoveries outside their parents’ cancer. 

“Basically we try to help them feel like a normal kid that’s not defined by their parents’ diagnosis,” she said.

To help foster this sense of liberation, everyone at camp addresses each other by their “Kesem Name,” which each person makes up themselves. 

“The names are meant to give the kids an alternate reality to be whoever they want to be for a week,” chapter co-director and BYU student Ashlynn Hall said. Her father fought cancer for 9 years while she was growing up and she chose the Kesem Name “Minion,” because she used to watch the Despicable Me movies with him after chemo. 

Campers spend the days playing sports, swimming, doing arts and crafts, playing on ropes courses and engaging in other activities that help them escape.

But once during the week, everyone comes together for “Empowerment,” a time set aside for the campers to share whatever is on their minds. This is when kids usually open up about their hardships at home.

“That’s the moment when you realize you’re not the only one who struggles with this,” Mautz said. “You’re giving hugs to people you didn’t know five days ago.”

Hall tearfully recalled a specific “Empowerment” in which she listened to a 7-year-old boy sharing about his own father. She was amazed she could relate to him so much, considering that she was 13 years older than him.

“I thought, ‘if he can do it, so can I,’” she said.

Lauren Coon and Alexi Fernandez listen to meeting participants answer their question: “If you were a food, what would you be?” The students wanted to give the potential volunteers a sample of the types of discussions campers have in their daily “Cabin Chats.” (Hannah McKinlay)

Another tradition that comes with “Empowerment” is everyone at camp is given a piece of yarn, all coming from the same spool.

“It symbolizes that even when we’re not at camp, we’re tied together,” Fernandez said. “We are there to support each other and Camp Kesem can come with us anywhere we decide to go.”

The sense of connection Fernandez mentioned is encapsulated in the word “kesem.” According to Mautz, “kesem” means “magic” in Hebrew. Campers and counselors cultivate “kesem” during the week to take with them into their regular lives. 

For Mautz, “kesem” takes the form of the lifelong friendships she found at camp. When her mother passed away, she was able to find comfort in friends who truly understood what she was going through.

Over the past two years, COVID-19 forced Camp Kesem to take place over Zoom. But this summer, camp will be in person and at full capacity with COVID-19 precautions in place. There are already 200 campers signed up.

Kesem “has been incredible at adapting to COVID-19, especially since all the families we serve are immunocompromised,” Hall said.

Kesem leadership urges college students to volunteer as counselors before applications close at the end of February. Hall said volunteers do not need to have experiences with cancer to help out.

“Anyone who’s ever had a sad day in their life can relate to these kids and make a difference,” she said.

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