Camp Kesem: A Safe Place to be a Kid

Laughter and giggles are heard throughout the entire camp. Children jump into the pool or hang out with new friends in their tents. The day is spent playing games and eating way too much pizza and mac and cheese. 

For that one week every summer these kids have one job: to be a kid. But once the week is over and the bags are packed, kids leave Camp Kesem and head back to reality where their parents have cancer.

Camp Kesem is specifically designed for children ranging from 6-18 years old whose parents have or had cancer. The camp was founded at Stanford University in 2000 by a graduate student.

Aubrey Pearson, a senior biology major at SUU, has been involved with Camp Kesem for almost two years. She fondly explained how the program began with one student that wanted to help other kids suffering with this same reality.

“[The founder] had a parent growing up with cancer and because of this he felt like he didn’t get to have the typical experiences of a childhood,” Pearson said. “He started Camp Kesem as a way for a child to rediscover their inner child.”

In the past 20 years, Camp Kesem has become a nationwide community with camps being held in 42 states with 112 chapters. In Utah there are chapters located at Southern Utah University, Dixie State University and Brigham Young University.

SUU’s chapter started nine years ago. Since then, 70-80 SUU students volunteer their time and service for a week every summer to be a camp counselor. As Pearson put it, “90 percent of the camp is just having fun and igniting your inner child.”

Besides participating in talent shows or having paint wars, Camp Kesem has nightly “Cabin Chats” where topics such as processing grief or their parents’ death are discussed. No child is required to talk but it is an opportunity for them to express themselves if they so desire.

“I think a lot of the times these kids in normal conversation will throw around things like, ‘Oh when I was at my mom’s funeral…’ and they don’t get that is not normal because it’s just something that has happened to them,” said Pearson. “But when they are throwing around those topics in conversation around other kids that have parents that have cancer too, someone will hop off that and say, ‘Yes, at my dad’s funeral…’” 

Amy Humphries-Sharpe’s son Brendan has attended the camp for the past eight years. Humphries-Sharpe is  SUU’s Program Coordinator for the Utah Center of Rural Health.

Her late husband Randy was diagnosed with cancer in August of 2012. Her son Brendan has attended the camp since he was 10 years old.

Over the course of the eight years Brendan has developed special relationships with the counselors that helped him through some of the hardest parts of his life. She recalls the importance of the camp to her family with tears in her eyes.

“If you were to ask my son [Brendan], they are family,” Humphries-Sharpe said. “When you are ten years old and your dad has cancer, it changes your life… When my husband Randy died, I got a text message from my son’s camp counselors asking if they can take my son to go get some ice cream… They are my family.”

Humphries-Sharpe saw firsthand how Camp Kesem and the SUU camp counselors helped her son grow into the man he is today.

This past fall, one of Brendan’s friends from Camp Kesem’s mother passed away. Brendan was one of the first people to reach out and make sure his friend was okay.

“I attribute not just [his dad’s] cancer changing him, but Camp Kesem changing him into a very much more compassionate person,” said Humphries-Sharpe. “Camp Kesem gives [kids] that connection to somebody that gets it. You can talk to people and describe it and tell them about your experience, but unless they have lived it, they don’t get it.”

Since Humphries-Sharpe has seen the impact the organization can make, she now is giving back. She currently sits on the Advisory Board and is the Campus Advisor. 

One of her jobs is to help plan the biggest fundraising event of the year, “Make the Magic,” which is a silent and live auction that was supposed to be held on April 2.

No parent has to pay for their child/children to go camping. The camp is strictly put on by donations. It costs about $250 per child to go to the camp and every year kids are turned away due to the lack of funds. This year the goal is to raise enough money for 150 children to go to camp and create friendships to last a lifetime.

“It is a safe place,” said Humphries-Sharpe. “I love every camp counselor because they are willing to give up their time for my kid so that my kid can have that experience… And that’s why I am paying it forward.”

At first glance, Camp Kesem may look like a normal summer camp for kids, but it’s more than laughing, swimming and pizza. It’s family.

If you want to donate visit @SUUcampkesem on Facebook or click here to donate.

Story by: Cassidy Harmon
Photos Courtesy of Aubrey Pearson