When she lost her mom to cancer at 17, she was not sure how to express her grief. Kaitlin Harp, a senior interdisciplinary studies major, relied on a few close friends and family, but no one really understood what she was going through.
Harp’s background is the reason she became involved in Camp Kesem – hoping that her story can help other children going through a similar tragedy.
Camp Kesem is a nonprofit organization with chapters at colleges across the country. It reaches out to kids whose parents have had cancer.
“It’s a place for them to escape and be kids. They’ve had to grow up way too fast,” explained Harp. “This is a place for them to be showered with love and hope. We want to give them a reason to keep fighting and know that good things can still come.”
Camp Kesem started at Stanford University in 2000. Since then, close to 12,000 children have taken part in transformative camp experiences nationwide. Parents involved have said they believe Camp Kesem positively affected their families, noting their children’s new confidence, support network and increase in self-esteem.
The Texas A&M chapter was founded in 2007 and supports children in Texas by providing a weeklong summer camp at no charge to the campers. This year, 105 campers attended Camp Kesem at a location in Huntsville with 54 student volunteers, including 25 counselors and camp leaders from the College of Education and Human Development.
Harp wants to be a teacher and believes this experience will help her both in and out of the classroom.
“I’ve been able to use the skills I’ve learned in my classes at A&M to help with managing the kids and working through issues I haven’t dealt with before,” she said. “As operations coordinator, I’ve had to focus on keeping everything calm and organized and helping campers and other counselors make Camp Kesem successful.”
“We do it for the kids, but they change our lives in ways that it’s not even possible to explain. You come in thinking that you’re going to change their lives but they change yours and it’s amazing,” said Tyleigh Clark, a senior sport management major.
The campers are split into age groups and participate in activities throughout the day, including sports, adventure activities and arts and crafts. Multiple times throughout the week, the campers also take part in activities as a group, including talent and fashion shows. The goal is to keep the campers from thinking about why they are really there, to escape – even if just for a week – the fact that a parent has cancer.
“Here at Kesem, you really learn how to give your grief an outlet. I came to camp just a couple of months after my dad passed away. I had no clue what to expect,” explained Jordan Lorch, a senior kinesiology major. “It is completely fun and a 100 percent outlet to get rid of your grief, get out, have a little fun and step away from the real world. It’s incredible.”
There is one designated time where cancer is the focus of discussion. One afternoon during camp, campers are involved in an empowerment ceremony. The campers have a chance to tell their stories and what Camp Kesem has given them.
“Just seeing the love the kids have for each other and the way they encourage one another, it’s amazing. They make lifelong friends here,” said Harp.
“It’s nice to see everyone open up. You cry, they cry and you really see this huge support system built. It means so much to them throughout the years to know they’re not going through this alone. It’s beautiful to see,” added Clark.