A college student counselor helps a Camp Kesem camper.
Two months after losing his father to a chronic illness, Yoav Lurie went away to his Jewish summer camp in California a grieving seven-year-old boy.
“I remember starting to cry at the Mourners’ Kaddish, but my counselors, who were really concerned, couldn’t understand what was wrong with me: I was in desperate need of emotional support,” recalls Lurie, a 2005 graduate of Duke University.
Today, Lurie serves as the unpaid president and executive director of Camp Kesem, a nationwide project of free, one-week sleep-away camps for children ages 6-13, who have or had a parent with cancer. The camps are organized and run by college students from participating campuses. Complete with all the usual summer camp activities like arts and crafts, swimming, ropes courses, campfires, singing and good times, they are also designed to give the children time to talk and share their common experiences of having (or losing) a parent with cancer.
This summer, 16 college campuses and 375 college student counselors will host 750 campers at Camp Kesems across the country. An additional five campuses are planning to open camps in the summer of 2008.
First launched in 2000 as a Stanford Hillel tzedek, social justice, project, the camps are named after the Hebrew word for magic, “Kesem.” Initially, the Stanford students wanted to start a camp for children with cancer, but after speaking to doctors and camp directors, they learned of the unique and underserved needs of children dealing with the trauma of having a parent with cancer.
After more than a year of fundraising, planning, training and recruiting both campers and counselors, the first Camp Kesem opened at a northern California campground during the summer of 2001. There were 60 campers and 30 college student counselors.
Despite its Hillel origins, Camp Kesem remains a secular camp, open to counselors and campers of all backgrounds and religions.
During Lurie’s winter break from Duke in 2001, he met a friend for coffee. The friend, a Stanford student, told him about the work she was doing with Camp Kesem. Shortly after, an inspired Lurie brought the idea back to his social entrepreneurship class where he wrote a business plan for Duke’s first Camp Kesem. “It was abject plagiarism,” says Lurie of the business plan. “But the best ideas are stolen!” And a national project was born. Nearly two years later, in the summer of 2003, a joint Duke/ University of North Carolina Camp Kesem opened with nearly 20 campers, counselors and staff.
Over the next couple of years, as the excited college students continued to tell their friends about Camp Kesem, the project grew. In 2002, Camp Kesem National was founded to help other campuses start their own Camp Kesem.
Not long after being diagnosed with leukemia at the age of 12, Erica Birnbaum spent the summer at the “The Hole in the Wall Gang Camp” in Connecticut. Designed for children with cancer and other serious illness, Birnbaum was able to focus on being a kid and not on her cancer.
Now in remission and a Northwestern University graduating senior, she says, “I understood how therapeutic camp can be and the healing power of just being a kid.”
At the start of her freshman year, Birnbaum was approached by Northwestern’s Hillel director to help launch Camp Kesem. In the summer of 2005, Northwestern hosted its first camp with 38 campers and 25 counselors. This summer they are planning for twice that number. “Kesem means magic and Camp is magical,” says Birnbaum.
Magical, yes, but it takes more than magic to pull of a summer camp that costs, depending on the location, between $250-$500 per camper. The camps, including transportation, are free for all the campers. While the college students volunteer their time, the special emotional needs of the children require a higher ratio of counselors to campers, usually 1:2. In addition, there are three paid positions – camp director, nurse and therapist -- all filled by professionals. Most of the monies raised come from grants and donations from nonprofit organizations as well as private donations. The students also plan fundraising events on campus.
Camp Kesem is not just a nurturing experience for the campers, it is also a leadership training ground for the counselors. In addition to raising funds, the college students plan every aspect of the camp, from the logistical requirements, to recruitment, to sensitivity and safety training. “I learned how important it is [for a project] to have a leader,” says Birnbaum. “It was unbelievably stressful planning Camp, but in the end it all comes together and we give these families a strong and safe summer camp for their kids.”
And, says Lurie, “it’s also a low key, under-the-radar way of spreading [the Jewish values of] tikkun olam, healing the world, and tzedakah, selfless giving; regardless of whether or not there are any Jews at the camps, they still have the name – Camp Kesem.”
Camp Kesem will be held by the following campuses during the summer of 2007: Stanford, Duke/University of North Carolina, Notre Dame, University of California San Diego, Indiana University, UCLA, Northwestern, University of California Davis, University of Virginia, University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, Saint Rose College, MIT, Arizona State, University of California Berkeley, Michigan State, Columbia University. The following campuses will open Camp Kesem in 2008: Washington University in St. Louis, University of Florida, Brigham Young University, University of Cincinnati, San Diego State University, Texas A&M.