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Cancer affects not just individuals but whole families.

In a world where nearly everyone has been touched by cancer in some way, there are 5 million children in the United States alone who have been affected by a parent’s cancer. The emotional toll this can have on a child in his or her formative years can be great, but one organization is working purposefully to ease the burden.

Camp Kesem began 18 years ago at Stanford University to provide a supportive, safe place for kids who have lost a parent to cancer, who have a parent undergoing treatment or whose parent is a cancer survivor. The free weeklong summer camp has grown from humble beginnings to more than 100 chapters in 40 states across the country, with some chapters offering multiple sessions each summer.

One such chapter is right here at Saint Louis University (SLU). The local chapter started in 2013 and is operated by a group of SLU volunteers who work year-round to raise money for the organization.

Laurel Dusek, a junior political science major at SLU, serves as the chapter’s public relations and marketing coordinator, along with fellow student Justin Parramore. She got involved with Camp Kesem after working as a camp counselor at home in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. This will be her second summer helping with the camp itself, and she works with other student volunteers to raise money for Camp Kesem throughout the year.

“I love summer camp and how impactful it can be for children, especially if they’re going through a tough time,” Dusek says.

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This summer, dozens of campers ages 6 to 18, along with student volunteers, will venture to Sunnyhill Adventures Center in Dittmer the first full week in August for swimming, fishing, archery, arts and crafts, other sports and more. The counselors work to ensure the week is a safe, supportive and high-energy adventure for the campers. The days have built-in downtime, a rotating selection of activities and evening all-camp activities like “capture the flag” or talent shows that bring everyone together.

Each day at Camp Kesem is different, allowing campers to get a full spectrum of summer camp experiences. What sets Camp Kesem apart from other summer camps, though, is its built-in support system for the hardships that accompany a child dealing with a parent’s cancer. With a 3-to-1 camper-to-counselor ratio, Camp Kesem ensures that campers get the attention and support they need. Each evening, counselors also facilitate “cabin chats,” where campers can talk about what’s on their minds in a safe place among peers.

“We’ll read, tell a story or lead a discussion, depending on the age group,” Dusek says. “I was with the older girls [last summer] and was able to ask deep questions about school and life in general. It’s a chance for everyone to get to know each other on a deeper level.”

Once during a week of camp, counselors facilitate a session called “empowerment,” where campers are invited to share their family’s story. It’s a time for campers to discuss what they’re experiencing, their hopes and dreams, and what the camp experience has done for them.

“It gives them a sense of comfort knowing the people around them understand what they’re going through,” Dusek says.

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Although SLU’s chapter of Camp Kesem is fairly new, it’s become popular due to St. Louis’ proximity to prominent hospitals and research centers. This summer, Dusek says the camp plans to take on two dozen more campers than in 2017, for a total of 110 this year. “Last year, we had 86; this year we should have at least 110 at our larger campsite,” Dusek says. “In 2017, nationally, we served more than 7,300 kids.” Luckily, volunteer growth has mirrored growth in campers, and Dusek says volunteering is becoming popular on campus.

“Since St. Louis is such a big place for hospitals and research, there are a lot of patients with families in the area,” she says. “It’s great that we have this organization to support them.”

It takes about $1,000 to support each camper, so this year’s fundraising goal is $110,000. Through events throughout the year, like the annual Make the Magic event and Giving Tuesday, along with generous donations, the local camp is able to expand and serve more local children each year.

“Everyone involved is so passionate about the organization,” Dusek says. “Camp can be a great place for people to discover new things about themselves. It’s such a powerful experience.”

Camp Kesem at Saint Louis University, slu@campkesem.org, campkesem.org/slu

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Robyn is LN's digital editor and a staff writer. Proud alumna of Notre Dame High School in St. Louis and Eastern Illinois University. Avid coffee drinker, dog lover, concertgoer and word nerd.

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