When Jay and Penny Olson dropped their nine-year-old daughter Autumn off at Camp Kesem two summers ago, she was withdrawn — not her usual bright and bubbly self.
Autumn shut down when her mom was diagnosed with cancer earlier that year.
“It was like we had lost our little girl,” Jay Olson said.
When they picked her up a week later, things were different.
“She gave us a great big hug. It was like we had our daughter back,” he said.
Camp Kesem is a free University of Minnesota student-run summer camp for kids and teens whose parents have or have had cancer.
“If it weren’t for Camp Kesem I would probably still be like a turtle hiding in its shell,” said Autumn, now 11 and preparing for her third summer at the camp.
“You’re not only worrying about your parents and their cancer, you’re worrying like every kid does how am I going to make friends? How is this going to work?” she said.
Now in its third year, Camp Kesem is poised to help even more children like Autumn whose lives have been affected by their parents’ battles with the disease.
The Kesem experience
Camp Kesem Minnesota started in 2012 when a group of University of Minnesota students raised nearly $30,000 to send 35 campers, including Autumn, to camp in Paynesville.
It’s part of a nationwide network of college students across the country who raise funds throughout the year and volunteer to bring the camp experience to their communities.
Today, there are 54 Camp Kesem chapters at colleges throughout the U.S.
Kesem is Hebrew for magic — and the camps strive to “bring magic to families coping with cancer.”
Alek Tomich, a University of Minnesota senior and one of the co-directors for this year’s camp, said Camp Kesem prides itself on not being too different from other summer camps.
Campers can expect a pretty typical array of activities like arts and crafts, campfires, canoeing, hiking, fishing
“When you’re a kid and you’re dealing with a parent who has a cancer, you don’t have a lot of opportunities to have fun because you have so much on your plate,” he said. “We want to make sure that camp is one week of pure fun.”
On the way to Camp Kesem for the first time last year, Melissa Reynolds said her son and daughter weren’t that excited. There were no smiles during camp registration and only one-word answers.
“They were like ‘Why do we have to go to a camp and deal with cancer all over again,’” Reynolds said.
It was a night and day difference when she and her husband picked them up. Ashlynn and Myca, known as Alfredo and 7evens at camp, talked nonstop and taught their little sister Amelia — who was too young to go last summer — all of the camp songs during the ride home to Pequot Lakes.
This year, all three Reynolds kids plan to attend the camp — and they’re all excited.
The University of Minnesota student group is working to raise $70,000 to send 85 campers to Camp Heartland in Willow River.
Last year, about $50,000 sent 65 kids ages six to 16 to camp in Hayward, Wis. Camp Kesem Minnesota, which more than doubled in size since its inaugural year, has outgrown the camps that have hosted the group in previous years. The camp boasts a 3-to-1 camper to counselor ratio, Tomich said. So when the number of kids increases year over year, so does the group’s all-volunteer counselor count.
To accommodate this year’s large group, Camp Heartland is “bigger than any other camp we’ve been to before,” Tomich said.
The Big ‘C’
While Camp Kesem has a non-therapeutic approach, the camp is uniquely designed to help address the kids’ experiences with cancer.
During one night early in the week, campers participate in an “empowerment ceremony” where they’re invited to share their story and tell everyone what brought them to Camp Kesem. Kids aren’t required to participate, but many choose to open up about their fears and vent their frustrations with campers and counselors who’ve had similar experiences.
Tomich said it’s really the only time they address cancer head-on.
“You have to talk about it at some point,” he said. “It’s like the elephant in the room.”
The emotional ceremony helps tie everyone together like a family. They usually hold it earlier in the week to make everyone more comfortable with each other so they can focus on having fun, he said.
“We share our stories about our parents and what happened to us in our lives,” Autumn said. “All of the rest of the time it’s like you’re at a regular camp.”
Most of the counselors can relate to the campers because they’ve had experience with the disease in their families.
“[The counselors] were looking for something like this when they were a kid and it’s kind of like paying it forward now,” said Tomich, who lost his dad to cancer at age 8.
Penny Olson was surprised when she learned so many of the counselors had experience with cancer.
“They’ve been down a similar trail which gives them a direct connection with many of the kids,” she said.
Counselors’ personal experience combined with specialized training helps them to tackle some big issues that other camps might not have to deal with — like a camper who says they’re not sure if their mom or dad will be alive when they get home.
“It takes some practice to take their mind off that situation,” Tomich said.
The camp experience helped Autumn open up to her parents about her feelings.
“I was afraid to be by my mom, like if I was looking at her or talking to her and she’d die,” she said. “But I was afraid to be away from her because I was afraid she would die while I was gone.”
After camp, she knew it was safe to talk to her parents.
“She was afraid to tell me how she was feeling because she was afraid of hurting me,” Penny Olson said.
Beyond summer camp
Camp Kesem’s influence extends beyond a week of summer fun to reunions throughout the year and a network of support for campers and their families.
When Melissa Reynolds’ husband passed away from cancer in December, a dozen counselors made the three-hour trip to Pequot Lakes for the visitation service and funeral. It was just after finals week at the University of Minnesota and they delayed trips home to their families to spend time with Ashlynn, Myca and Amelia, Reynolds said.
“It was such a testimony. Just look at the commitment and dedication these college students have to these little kids,” she said.
The counselors that couldn’t make it sent a care package, referring to them by their camp names. Even Amelia, who hasn’t yet attended camp, was included and given her own camp shirt.
Reynolds said the camp counselors have had a huge impact on her family.
“It’s encouraging to look at them as mentors, as older kids, that have gone through it and are successful,” she said. “They’re still happy and doing something positive out of something negative.”
Even though the camp is free, the Olsons donate each year to Camp Kesem to give the opportunity to another child.
“It meant so much to us to have our daughter back so we decided to sponsor another kid so that another child could become whole again,” Jay Olson said
He said he hopes to send Autumn to Camp Kesem as long as she can and maybe she’ll have the opportunity to be a counselor when she’s older.
“They say ‘Once you’re in the Kesem family, you’re in,’” he said.