Students are taking a leadership role at UCLA’s Camp Kesem by supporting children through and beyond their parent’s cancer. One of the program’s student co-coordinators and ucla student, nathalie dierx, shares her experience with this influential program

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By: Nathalie Dierkx, Camp Kesem Magic Co-coordinator
UCLA, Sophmore

To be honest, life can be pretty trivial at age 20. Although this can be exciting and fun, at times it seems like we are all waiting for our real lives to happen. We are all waiting to make a big difference in the world.

But this changes with Camp Kesem.

Camp Kesem is a nationwide community, driven by passionate college student leaders, that supports children through and beyond their parent’s cancer. The cornerstone activity of Camp Kesem is the one-week summer camp for children whose parents have or have had cancer, and is offered completely free of charge to campers! UCLA is one of the oldest and most established chapters and expanded to two sessions last summer, now serving 230 deserving campers.

Though most of our days at camp are filled with water slides, talent show skits, and counselors getting covered in shaving cream and spaghetti-o’s, in the quiet of the evening, camp becomes intimate and profound. Campers begin to see they can be vulnerable here, that Camp Kesem is a safe space, that they are not alone. And counselors learn that most often, listening is the most touching gift you could ever give. During these two weeks of camp, 85 undergraduate counselors (that I am so deeply proud to be one of) get to interact with the kids we love to support and see the effects of all of our fundraising efforts, trainings, and hard work.

But don’t give us too much credit; we are not changing these campers’ lives. What we provide is a space where they change each other’s.

Camp Kesem is life changing for everyone involved. Just two weeks ago I was reminded of the miracle Camp Kesem is to families as I spoke with a parent whose husband’s brain cancer consumed their families lives.  For her, Kesem meant the miracle of a free week away from hospital beds, and chemotherapy, and trying to act strong in front of her young son. For the camper, Kesem shows them that they are not the only one who knows what its like to have a parent -the rock who helps you understand the world- be sick. For the counselor, who freshman year was lost in the sea of UCLA students and worthy causes, now finds a home and a family in Kesem’s staff and campers.

Being involved in Kesem has easily been the most important thing I have done, not just at UCLA but in my adult life. With my co-director, Brenna Mendoza, we put on an event on May 9th called Make the Magic, a benefit dinner to raise funds to support the camp and its campers. We are so proud of the event’s success and thankful for all of our supporters- the student counselors, all those who contributed food, beverages, and other items for the evening, and to the families supported by the funds raised. We are incredibly grateful for the support that all of our guests showed for Kesem. We raised over 43, 000 dollars at Make the Magic, enough to send over 78 campers to camp this summer!  Having Camp Kesem be available completely free to the campers is the only way we can be true to our mission statement. We are going to be available to families burdened not only by the fear and loss that cancer can bring, but also by the extraordinary financial hardship that it can entail.

Planning the event was very time-consuming and very exciting for Brenna and I, Lauren Vaughn and Michael Ruder, our directors, and the rest of the executive committee. At times, we got bogged down by the details of venues and programming and excited by donations of flowers, beer and wine, and incredible raffle items. There were moments amidst this chaos when we struggled to remember why we even put this event on- to share the magic of Kesem with as many people as possible, and make camp a possibility for our deserving 230 campers.

There were also moments in this process that brought my life into sharp perspective. Attending the memorial service for a mom of three of our beloved campers, watching Kesem counselors and camper families run 26.2 miles at the LA Marathon to send kids to camp, playing Wii Just Dance with the counselors and campers I call my best friends.  These are the cherished moments that remind me why we do what we do.

When a parent is diagnosed with cancer, the carefree joys and adventure of childhood are replaced with new responsibilities, anger, guilt, and fear. There is nothing that we can do to bring these children back into innocence, there is nothing we can do to take away the hardship that cancer burdens a family with, nothing that will erase the loss of a parent or the loss of the way their lives used to be. But Kesem is magic.

Kesem is transformative, character-building, and comfortable. Kesem is not a cancer camp. Kesem is a place where campers form a community where everyone understands what they are going through. The very thing that isolates these campers from their classmates, their neighbors, and their friends 51 weeks a year is what unites them for their one week at camp. I know we all wish we could live in a world where no child has to confront their parents’ illness. At least in a world with Camp Kesem, they will never have to face it alone.