Camp Kesem, a summer camp for children who have a parent with cancer, is trying to give all children the opportunity to “just be kids.”

Last year UC Santa Cruz established its own chapter with the goal of recruiting student volunteers from campus, and reaching out to more families in the Santa Cruz area.

“The students fundraise the whole year to make sure that happens,” said program director Mark Manning. “Cancer diagnoses can really put a financial strain on a family, and we don’t want that to be a limiting factor for anybody.”

Camp Kesem is free to all children with at least one primary caregiver currently undergoing cancer treatment or in remission from cancer, or have a parent who passed away due to cancer.

The average cost per camper is $500 dollars per week, Manning said.

However, additional expenses can add up to over $1,000 dollars a year per camper due to Camp Kesem’s yearlong support.

“A network of unconditional love and support grew out of each year of camp and continued throughout the year as we all stayed in touch and attended reunions,” said former camper Sze-Shun Lau. “The genuine connections I inevitably made with my counselors and fellow campers would stick with me year-round and act as a constant reminder that I was not alone.”

Every night campers participate in “Cabin Chats” with other kids and counselors, where they have a chance to speak about their feelings in a safe and understanding environment.

“Hearing everyone’s stories at camp helped me put my situation into perspective,” said former camper and current co-director of the UCSC chapter Katie Sweeney. “We realize that although each individual was experiencing something different, we could all understand what each person was going through.”

Former campers said being able to talk to other kids with shared experiences at the camp was extremely beneficial.

“I never discussed my experience with cancer outside of camp, not even with my closest friends or at home,” Lau said. “At camp, however, I felt completely comfortable talking about what was going on and expressing my feelings because I knew everyone else had a story as well and was willing to listen and understand.”

In addition to what Camp Kesem’s website calls “non-therapeutic” emotional support, the organization strives to let kids “just be kids” without the extra responsibilities and worries that may arise at home.

“Camp Kesem allowed me to redeem a part of my childhood that had been lost in attempts to mature quickly,” Lau said.

However, Camp Kesem is not only about the campers, but also the student volunteers who make the experience possible. Student volunteers started the UCSC chapter last year, and they are looking for more volunteers to strengthen their team.

“The core of our volunteer group [in Santa Cruz] are the UCSC students, but they also work with an advisory board that just got started in the past month, so some working professionals from the community are helping out,” said program director Mark Manning. “The core of the program is our very enthusiastic, very energetic college student volunteers.”

The students behind UCSC’s chapter are organizing local fundraisers and reaching out to community schools, sports teams, restaurants and other organizations for financial support. The UCSC chapter hopes to double its funding and the number of its campers in three years, co-director Katie Sweeney said.

One of the most important goals of the UCSC Camp Kesem chapter is bringing in more campers from the Santa Cruz area.

“I’ve met with the new community outreach coordinators at UCSC and they’re working on compiling a list of contacts to reach out to,” Manning said. “A big part of [outreach] is getting kids from that area.”

While 3,000 kids attended Camp Kesem last summer, the camp’s research shows 3 million children in the U.S. were eligible to participate in the fun and supportive program, Manning said.

“We’re only touching a small percent of the population in need,” Manning said, “so that’s why we’re so focused on growth and offering this program to more kids — hopefully soon in every state.”


The summer camp will be held at YMCA Camp Jones Gulch  from June 13-18.