While looking through surveys about this summer’s Camp Kesem, senior Shailly Gaur was struck by one little girl’s reaction: She wrote that Camp Kesem made her feel like she was never alone.
Camp Kesem is a network of colleges across the country that host free sleep away camps for children whose parents or other family members are dealing with cancer. The project started at Stanford University in 2001 and came to the George Washington University in 2008, where it has run for six years. Camp Kesem supported more than 3,000 children between the ages of six and 16 nationwide this year.
GW hosts its camp every August at Camp Louise in Cascade, Md. This summer’s efforts were led by an executive board of 13 students, including the program’s co-chairs juniors Kimya Forouzan and Sydnee Fielkow, and Ms. Gaur, who worked as the public relations coordinator. The group raised more than $60,000 during the school year to fund the camp.
Forty-one GW students were recruited as counselors to guide 82 campers during a week of activities between Aug. 18 and Aug. 23. A social worker, a nurse practitioner and three advisers also made up the camp’s staff.
The campers participated in rotating activities each day, including arts and crafts, outdoor sports and team-building exercises. Staff encouraged kids to build support systems for one another and bond with other campers undergoing similar experiences. The goal, said Ms. Fielkow, was to allow “kids to be kids” and provide them a fun, positive space during a tough time.
Ms. Forouzan said because campers are dealing with such difficult experiences, counselors must be equipped to help them. The team prepared with training sessions, online workshops and quizzes organized through the national Camp Kesem network.
Although the on-site social worker could tackle particularly hard situations, Ms. Forouzan said most counselors knew how to comfort their campers because of the close connections they established early on with the kids.
“I know many children wanted to go home at one point or another because they were worried about their relatives,” Ms. Gaur added. “But we learned to be there for them as much as possible and guide them through what they were feeling.”
The weeklong activities culminated with an empowerment ceremony, in which kids were invited to stand up and share their experiences with cancer. The annual event is often the most emotional and surprising part of the camp.
“Some kids with behavioral issues—who you wouldn’t expect to stand up—spoke unbelievably maturely at the ceremony,” Ms. Forouzan said. “I kept thinking, ‘If I close my eyes, I could mistake this for an adult speaking about cancer—not a child.’”
Families have reached out to thank GW’s Camp Kesem student group for providing their child with a remarkable experience. But Ms. Fielkow said it was the leaders of the camp who benefitted most.
“I can say we grew up more at Camp Kesem and through our time being around kids for a week than anything else,” she said.