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Camp Kesem offers a respite for children of parents battling cancer

The nonprofit, no-cost summer camp program Camp Kesem endeavors to lighten the emotional load carried by kids of parents with cancer.

Camp Kesem

To Just Be A Kid Again

Posted on January 3, 2020

The challenges of a battle with cancer aren’t limited to the person who receives the diagnosis. The fear, worry, and pain that go along with it touch everyone around them, including children. That’s why in 2001, Camp Kesem, a nonprofit that endeavors to lighten the emotional load carried by kids of parents with cancer, even if only for a week, was founded on the campus of Stanford University. The no-cost summer camp program operated primarily by college student counselors is now a nationwide organization with 116 chapters established at 42 universities across the country, including one at UC San Diego as well as a recently founded chapter at San Diego State University.

Camp Kesem


Established in 2004 with the first camp taking place in 2005, UC San Diego’s Camp Kesem has grown from hosting just 15 kids its first year to now being one of the largest in the nation, with two sessions scheduled in summer 2020 to serve 260 campers. Kids eligible for the camps are between 6 and 18 years old and needn’t have any affiliation with the university beyond living in San Diego County. Those who age out are certainly not left behind. A training unit prepares those individuals to become counselors in their last year of eligibility, and the result is not only a never-ending stream of new counselors eager to give back to kids with similar experiences to their own, but the program also contributes to the creation of new chapters as those Kesem alumni go off to college themselves, sometimes at campuses that aren’t already home to their own Camp Kesem program. This was precisely the case for the new San Diego State chapter; it was founded by a UC San Diego Camp Kesem graduate.


It’s estimated that roughly 60 percent of kids return after their first experience at camp, and admission priority is given to those repeat campers. But whether it’s a camper’s first time or their tenth, the goal is to give them an amazing experience while surrounded by other kids who understand what they’re going through, with traditional activities like swimming, rock climbing, arts and crafts, and archery. With a camper to counselor ratio of two-to-one, every participant is sure to receive the individual attention that they need to ensure they have the very best experience while at the weeklong sleepaway camp. Mental health professionals, nurses, and camp advisors are also on hand to provide additional specialized resources.

While at camp, the kids also take part in something called “empowerment,” where they all come together to share why they’re there, or “why they Kesem,” as they call it. “It’s very impactful for them to see each other’s journey to know that they’re not going through this by themselves,” says former counselor Maryam Alkhayyat. “You can just feel the energy and the love the day after empowerment.”

Now, Alkhayyat is currently coordinating the program’s biggest fundraising event, the annual Make the Magic Gala, which will take place on February 8 at the Seaside Room of the Marina Village Conference Center. Responsible for about one-third of the camp’s annual funding, the gala features a hosted cocktail hour and dinner plus speakers, including campers and their parents, who share how the program has impacted them personally. The cost for one child to attend the camp is about $500; the gala is expected to fund the attendance of more than 75 kids for this year’s camps. No matter what, that expense isn’t ever passed on to the camp participants. Says Alkhayyat, “We want camp to be accessible to everyone.” campkesem.org/ucsd, donate.kesem.org/ucsdmtm2020   Deanna Murphy


Photography by Sara Wang


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