Three years ago, I decided to make a radical career shift. After spending 15 years building and growing corporate organizations, I felt compelled to find a role with a larger social mission and impact. During my search, I learned about Camp Kesem, a unique organization that not only served an often overlooked population, children affected by a parent’s cancer, but empowered college students to make a difference. As a mother, I was immediately drawn to the mission. And as someone who valued leadership development, I loved the method by which Camp Kesem delivered its programs, by creating development opportunities for college students.
Unfortunately, my connection with our mission quickly became very personal. After just 7 weeks with Camp Kesem, my younger sister Susan, was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer. She was 35 years old, and had three young children under the age of 4. As I watched Susan fight this unforgiving and brutal disease, I gained an appreciation of why Camp Kesem’s work was so important. As a parent, all you want to do is protect, love and be there for your kids. And when you cannot do that, you feel powerless and helpless. And your kids feel helpless and hopeless too. As hard as Susan fought to be with her kids, she did not win her battle, and died 11 weeks after her diagnosis. I still struggle with losing my best friend and confidante every day. But I have decided the very best way to honor Susan’s legacy is to do everything I can to bring support, comfort and love not only to her three children, but to the 3 million children who have or have had a parent with cancer.
Sadly, my story is far from unique. In fact, over 75% of the college students who volunteer with Camp Kesem had cancer impact someone in their family while they were growing up. For a fortunate few, there was a Camp Kesem in their community, and they had an opportunity to participate as a camper –and now are paying back their gratitude by volunteering as counselors. But for the vast majority, they did not have access to a Camp Kesem – and experienced firsthand the fear, isolation and pain that can come from having your childhood interrupted by a parent’s cancer. When I talk to our student leaders about what Camp Kesem means to them, I’m constantly struck by how important it is for them to be able to uniquely and empathetically relate to our campers, and how they have found a profound way to turn their own childhood feelings of helplessness and hopelessness into something positive.
It is this personal connection and mission that inspires our volunteer student leaders to work hundreds of hours year-round to create, develop and manage their Camp Kesem chapters. Our student leaders are responsible for fundraising to cover the direct costs of camp, recruiting and training counselors, conducting outreach to find families in need, managing budgets, and planning the programming for camp. Along the way, they gain incredible skills in leading and working with teams, taking initiative, problem solving, time management and organization, communication, and professional relationship building. It is not surprising that when they graduate, our student leaders consistently cite Camp Kesem as the most influential activity they participated in while in college, and indicate that their experience had significant impact on their post-graduate and career choices. Over 89% of our student leaders intend to continue philanthropic work after college, creating the very type of leaders our world so desperately needs.
Kesem means “magic” in Hebrew. I am so very proud of the 1,500+ college student volunteers who create the magic that is Kesem each and every day. They inspire me to remember the power we all have to make a difference in the life of a child – and the world around us. And they remind me that our own pain and tragedy can be used as a force for good to create triumph for others.
About Camp Kesem
Camp Kesem recognizes and embraces an often overlooked population, children affected by a parent’s cancer. Camp Kesem provides a safe and supportive peer-based support network, where children befriend others who can relate to their unique situation, and gain the strategies, courage and confidence needed to cope with their parent’s illness or death. This community is rooted in our signature program – a network of free, college-student run summer camps and year-round support services. While children find support, college students develop critical leadership skills as they create, manage, fundraise and run every aspect of their local Camp Kesem chapter.