For more than 20 undergraduates at Princeton University, attending one of the nation’s best colleges also includes brightening the day of a child whose mom or dad has cancer.
Camp Kesem Princeton is the local chapter of a national organization that relies upon college students to fundraise and plan a free summer camp for youth ages 6 to 18 who lost a parent to cancer, have one battling the disease, or have one in recovery.
“We make sure that all families can access it if they would like to come,” says Princeton senior Marina Latif, a co-director of Camp Kesem.
Kesem, a Hebrew word that means magic, was started in 2000 at Stanford University. From those beginnings, there are now 5,000 student volunteers participating at 125 chapters nationwide.
“What’s unique about our model is that it’s all student volunteer-led,” said Domonique Hollins, vice president of brand and marketing for Kesem. “We lean totally on the volunteer support of our college leaders.”
Camp Kesem, the flagship program of Kesem, served almost 9,000 campers in 2018, Hollins said.
The story of how Camp Kesem came to Princeton started with two college roommates, Norman Greenberg and Sam Maron, who both graduated from Princeton in 2017.
“We knew that there were programs in place for people who suffered from cancer but not as many for family members,” said Greenberg, a 2017 graduate of Princeton.
He said he had heard about Kesem through a friend at Columbia University who was participating in the chapter at that Ivy League school. From the ground up, the Maron and Greenberg opened the Princeton chapter beginning in 2014 and had the first camp the year after that with about 20 campers. Greenberg recalled one of the first challenges was getting parents to trust their children with college students.
“It’s clear that there’s a need for it,” Greenberg said of Camp Kesem. “And I think that if we’re able to expand to 50 or 60 (campers) I think we would also probably fill up.”
For this summer Camp Kesem is scheduled for five days beginning Sunday, August 18, at a site in Johnsonburg, in Warren County. All 35 slots already are filled, with a waiting list. More than 80 percent of the campers are returnees who have participated before, Latif said.
At Johnsonburg there are opportunities for swimming, hiking, and other activities through the week. “We keep them busy,” Latif said.
But there’s also time for them to talk, including sharing what the camp means to them. Latif said it’s then when a lot of children will discuss their parents’ stories.
“Generally, the feedback is amazing,” Latif said. “Some of the best things I’ve heard from parents are that their kids come back feeling more empathetic, maybe coming out of their shells a little bit, not feeling so afraid to discuss cancer anymore. The kids seem to really, really get something out of this specific camp, as opposed to just any other type of camp that they might go to for the summer.”
Mikaela Bankston, who graduated from Princeton in 2018, got involved in the organization as a freshman. Her mother has cancer, she says, and it’s something that “definitely shaped my childhood and my passions in life.”
She said that when she learned about Camp Kesem, “I realized that was a way for me to connect directly with people that had similar experiences to me.”
Bankston was involved with Camp Kesem her entire time at Princeton. She said she felt it critical for children to have a community “in which they feel like they can share openly, either grieve or just have those difficult discussions that they can’t have with their friends.”
In looking back, she felt there was something healing for her about the experience. She watched friendships build, seeing both joy and sorrow among the campers.
“Just being able to see those kids have that opportunity that I didn’t have growing up, it was something very special and almost cathartic about seeing it through their eyes and being able to experience it,” she said.
Latif can also relate to what these children are going through. When she was a child, her mother had breast cancer — part of the reason why she got involved in Kesem.
“So when I listen to these kids discuss their stories, it brings back a lot of memories for me,” she said. “And I can definitely empathize with them.”
Like Bankston, Latif still has her mother with her.
“I’m definitely grateful for her health, especially when I think about the campers whose parents have passed away,” Latif said.
So how do students at Princeton fit volunteering for Camp Kesem into their busy schedules, school work, and other things they’re involved in? Aside from majoring in ecology and evolutionary biology, Latif also is involved in the student paper, the Daily Princetonian, as an editor. Latif is co-directing this summer’s camp with Ashley Dong, a junior majoring in economics.
“It’s like a year-round job, and we continue it throughout the summer months leading up to camp as well,” she said. “It’s something that we all care about. And so I think we all make the time for it.”
To recruit new members, Camp Kesem is at activity fairs on campus, and is part of the university’s Pace Center for Civic Engagement. Aside from Princeton, Rowan University in Glassboro is the only other university in New Jersey with a Kesem chapter.
Latif said there are outreach coordinators who publicize the camp, but she said Camp Kesem gets campers through word of mouth “from other camper families who’ve had really great experiences with us.”
To her, the camp affords children the chance to be around people who can relate to what they are experiencing.
“As much as cancer does affect so many people, I think it’s difficult for kids to talk about cancer with other kids or to find peers who understand what they’re going through,” Latif said. “So to connect all of these children together at camp and allow them this opportunity to express what they’re feeling and have someone else understand it, I think that’s a really unique experience.”
For more information: campkesem.org/princeton