Wash. U. to host student-run camp for children of cancer patients

| Senior Editor

Washington University will serve as host to one of the newest chapters of Camp Kesem, a weeklong summer camp program for children of parents who have or previously had cancer, after it completes a two-year planning period.

Founded at Stanford University in 2000, Camp Kesem now has chapters at over 80 college campuses, providing a summer camp experience for kids aged 6 to 16 at an American Camp Association accredited site that is completely free of charge and entirely student run.

Freshman Luke Sammons worked with a former Camp Kesem camper, junior Michelle Zhang, 1996 alum Iqbal Brainch and others to bring the camp to the University this year, learning just last week that Washington University had been established as an official chapter.

Sammons’ personal connection to the camp comes through his mother, who worked with Camp Kesem CEO Jane Saccaro’s husband. After hearing Saccaro speak about the program and attending the camp’s Chicago Magic Ball fundraiser while in high school, Sammons was determined to get involved.

“It made me say, ‘Look, I’ve got to do something about this,’ and so, I knew right then and there that whatever school I went to, whether it had a chapter or not, I was going to participate in Camp Kesem in some way, shape or form,” Sammons said. “Wash. U. not having a chapter, I saw it as fitting for me to take the initiative with it and run with it and see where we could get.”

Although Sammons has already put work into the camp, there are still two years to go before the first camp will be held by the Washington University chapter of Camp Kesem.

“A lot of people don’t understand how much goes on behind the scenes. They’ll say, ‘It’s a week-long summer camp, couldn’t you plan that in three days?’ Yes, you probably could. But you wouldn’t be changing the lives you’re changing if you didn’t take the time that was necessary,” Sammons said.

“One of the reasons I was so incentivized to do this as a freshman is because I want to see it through,” he added. “With the chapter being instated, I’ll see it through for two years, in whatever position I hold, and then I’ll be able to pass it along to people who have participated in it for two years, as well.”

Zhang, who was a camper herself, will graduate before the first camp is held, but is excited to have the opportunity to participate in the planning and running of the camp. She lost her father to liver cancer at the age of seven, then attended the camp for seven years, beginning at age nine.

“I just finally found myself in a place where everyone around me was going through something similar and that they could understand what I was going through. Because when I was seven, the day after my dad died, I went back to school, and I looked around at all of my friends, and they were living normal lives,” Zhang said. “And there was this burden on me that I couldn’t share with anyone because I couldn’t relate to them anymore, and they couldn’t relate to me, because when you’re seven you don’t think about your parents dying.”

She noted that the counselors fostering an environment of support and compassion made an incredible impact on her own life.

“The impact that my counselors had on me inspired me to be more confident in myself and not to let a parent’s passing hinder my life,” Zhang said. “Obviously it impacts your life, but in order to grow from it and not fall into a depression and let it control your life, I think [the camp] was something that really meant a lot for me, and I want to be able to do that for other kids, being able to empathize and share experiences.”

After recruiting an executive board, Sammons hopes to apply for Student Union recognition, recruit counselors, begin fundraising and spread the word to potential campers. In the past few weeks, they promoted a social media campaign where they were able to garner $40,000 in initial funding directly from the national Camp Kesem chapter. After five years, Sammons said that the Washington University chapter should be self-sufficient through fundraising efforts, with 81 percent of funds put toward programming.

Sammons predicted that the summer commitment, which could be an issue for some Washington University students who have internships or jobs lined up, would only be about three weeks: two weeks of planning and one week for the actual camp. He noted that the two-year planning period should leave plenty of time for counselors to set camp logistics, pick flights and adjust their summer schedules.