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Camp Kesem: a place for magic

  • A Magical Summer
    A Magical Summer  The magical moments that take place during the week make for a lifetime magical memories.  Photo courtesy of Camp Kesem W&M
  • Counselor Sundae
    Counselor Sundae  Campers turn their favorite counselors into their favorite desserts on counselor Sundays.  Photo courtesy of Camp Kesem W&M
  • Summer Tradition
    Summer Tradition  W&M Camp Kesem keeps the favorite summer camp tradition of roasting marshmallows alive.  Photo courtesy of Camp Kesem W&M
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They may not have wands or spells, but William & Mary students make magic happen for children every summer through Camp Kesem.

Camp Kesem – literally ‘magic’ in Hebrew – is a national organization run by college students that hosts free summer camps for children whose parents have been diagnosed with cancer. W&M camp co-director Hannah Zarnich ’18 says that magic is exactly what happens each year as worries are tossed aside, stress is relieved, lasting bonds are formed and unforgettable memories are made.

“You kind of just see things that take place ... and there is no other way to describe it besides magical,” said Zarnich.

This year’s W&M camp is taking place August 14-20 at Camp Piankatank in Heartfield, Virginia, just about an hour away from the university’s campus. But planning and fundraising efforts have been ongoing since last year’s camp ended.

The national organization was founded at Stanford University in 2000 and has grown to include more than 80 chapters across the country. The W&M chapter of Camp Kesem was founded in 2013 after student leaders applied for a $10,000 LIVESTRONG grant and hosted 30 campers. Now Camp Kesem at W&M has grown to accommodate 80 campers this summer.

The W&M camp counselors set an annual goal for the number of campers they’d like to accommodate each year. Then they fundraise to try to meet the goal. Each of the more than two dozen counselors commit to raising at least $500. Probably the largest fundraiser in the past year was Giving Tuesday right after Thanksgiving, during which the counselors leveraged their relationships with friends and family through social media.

“We set a goal to raise $2,000 that day collectively, and we raised over $11,000 just from that one day” said Zarnich.

Not only is Camp Kesem funded by the efforts of W&M students, but it is entirely organized and operated by them. Each year, W&M students volunteer to provide support and an outlet to the campers who face the difficult reality of their parents’ diagnosis.

“It’s serving a group of people that are often overlooked, and I’m just lucky to be able to help them,” said co-director Casey Douma ’16.

Although Camp Kesem is designed for kids whose parents have cancer, it is hardly the focus of the weeklong camp.

“The main priority is just to give them a week where they can be a kid again,” said Zarnich.

In fact, Camp Kesem operates just like any other summer camp. Campers ranging in age from 6 to 16 participate in the usual camp activities including canoeing, archery, arts and crafts, games and singing good old-fashioned camp songs. However, the support of the counselors and the newfound friends are what make Camp Kesem special, said the student directors.

Kimberly Hundley, whose husband is now in remission after battling leukemia, will be sending her 15-year-old daughter Ty Garland and 12-year-old son Cameron back to Camp Kesem for the third time this summer.

Although their initial summer at Camp Kesem was the first time that they had ever spent the night away from home for a week, Hundley was amazed to hear them say they wanted to go back again the following year.

“I think being with kids whose parents are at different stages of cancer was an eye-opener for them,” said Hundley.

Ty Garland felt a connection to the counselors whom she found to be very caring and relatable and was inspired to return to Camp Kesem in the future as a junior counselor.

She also found she was able to connect with others that were going through the same things she was experiencing.

“Knowing other kids my age and even kids younger than me have been through this too and were even stronger than I was,” is what she found helpful in dealing with her dad’s diagnosis, she said.

According to Zarnich, “They all can relate to one another in a way that they may not necessarily get from their peers at school.”

They can also rely on the care and compassion of the W&M students that will always lend an ear to listen and encourage.

“I think our camp is special because they support everyone,” said Duoma.