Camp Kesem ‘Lets Kids Be Kids’ Through Summer Camp Magic

August 2, 2023 By Renee Grutzik, amn8sb@virginia.edu Renee Grutzik, amn8sb@virginia.edu

What do food fights, Capture the Flag and creating a safe space for children affected by a loved one’s cancer have in common? They are all part of third-year University of Virginia student Claire Lichty’s August plans.

Camp Kesem, a summer camp experience, will be a week of fun for kids who are dealing with a lot at home. Lichty knows what they’re going through.

She was 2 when her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. A few years later, in the summer of 2015, a family friend died of ovarian cancer. That same year, her grandfather lost his battle with bladder cancer.  

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The tragedies she endured in 2015 reminded her of her mother's cancer battle years earlier, even though her mother was in remission.

“I definitely felt loss and like I didn’t have the vocabulary or practice to have hard conversations [about cancer] when I needed to,” the drama and computer science major said. 

Lichty’s first exposure to Camp Kesem came through her mother, a writer who was asked to pen an article about the national nonprofit. The camps, held at sites around the country, focus on empowering some of the 5 million children nationwide dealing with the emotional challenges of a parent’s cancer diagnosis.

Portrait of Claire Lichty

As the operations coordinator of UVA’s chapter of Camp Kesem, Claire Lichty uses her experiences as a former camper to plan camp activities and outreach opportunities. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

The organization’s mission is simple: Let kids be kids. After experiencing the emotional turmoil of a parent’s battle with cancer, Camp Kesem aims to provide a safe and inclusive environment for children with similar experiences to support one another and have fun. 

And how does Camp Kesem achieve this goal? By embracing the magic of good old-fashioned summer camp fun. 

In 2015, Lichty and her sister attended the University of San Diego’s chapter of Camp Kesem. By the end of the week, Lichty knew that her time with Camp Kesem was far from over. 

“Camp gave me the vocabulary and the tools to be there for people and to talk with different people about loss,” she said. “From the moment I got there, I knew Kesem was special.” 

Though she only attended Camp Kesem as a camper once, Lichty made it her mission to get involved in the Camp Kesem organization, even if that meant applying only to universities with an active chapter. 

After receiving her acceptance to the University of Virginia, Lichty sought out the UVA Camp Kesem information table at the Fall Activities Fair. 

Action shot of a group of kids playing GaGa Ball
Throughout their week at Camp Kesem, campers engage in a range of activities, such as Gaga Ball, talent shows and a massive food fight. (Contributed photo)

“One of my friends now thought I was really weird when I first met him because I messaged the Kesem Instagram three separate times asking when the club’s information meeting was going to be,” Lichty laughed. 

For the past two years, Lichty has devoted her summers to being a camp counselor of UVA’s chapter of Camp Kesem, under the camp nickname “Pickles.” Now, Lichty serves as the operations coordinator on the chapter’s executive board, where she works with fellow UVA student Charles Ellison.

“I came into Kesem mainly because the population they serve is really similar to what my little brother went through when I was younger,” said Ellison, a fourth-year student and UVA Camp Kesem co-director. “So I felt like making an impact on that community to help in any way I could was a way of giving back to kids like my brother.” 

Like many of the members of UVA’s chapter of Camp Kesem, Ellison has a history of cancer. When he was 13, Ellison was diagnosed with papillary thyroid cancer. 

Portraits of Ellison and Herold

Like many of the members of UVA’s chapter of Camp Kesem, both Ellison and Herold have a history of cancer that inspired them to join the organization. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

A typical week at camp includes activities such as Capture the Flag, talent shows, a campwide competition called “Color Cup” and the Messy Olympics, a food fight free-for-all.  

“The main work that happens from an emotional standpoint beyond just letting the kids be kids happens at cabin chats and Empowerment,” Ellison said. 

Every night at Camp Kesem ends with a “cabin chat,” where the campers in each cabin talk about whatever may be on their minds that night. “Sometimes cabin chats have nothing to do with cancer,” Ellison said. “But there is an understanding that cabin chats are a safe space in case someone did want to talk about cancer.”

“Empowerment” takes place midway through the week and is a night where campers can dive into the deeper topics that may be on their minds.

“I just remember crying like a baby at Empowerment because everyone’s been through so much, and they’re so young,” Lichty said. “Just hearing everyone’s story makes you realize … how impactful cancer can be.”

Working alongside Ellison as co-director is Ben Herold, a recent UVA biology graduate. 

“Right before my high school graduation, one of my best friends was diagnosed with leukemia,” Herold said. “The diagnosis is individual, but cancer is a family disease, which is something I learned through [my friend].” 

Campus-based Camp Kesem chapters, found in 44 states and Washington, D.C., raise funds throughout the year so campers attend at no cost. 

Large group photo after a food fight
The aftermath of last summer’s food fight included messy clothes and smiling faces. (Contributed photo)

Each year, UVA’s chapter raises more than $70,000 to cover the year’s operational costs that include the camp week, sending birthday gifts to campers throughout the year, and hosting friends and family days. 

“In various times of the year, we will send them friendship bracelets as a little gift to remind them that we’re still with them in a big family,” Herold said. 

In just a few days, UVA’s chapter of Camp Kesem will bring the magic to campers in Lowesville, just a 50-minute drive southwest of Charlottesville. Lichty, Ellison and Herold will serve as counselors alongside dozens of other UVA students.

Camp Kesem’s volunteer counselors are carefully selected based on personality factors that align with their mission, experience working with children and the ability to empathize with their campers. The competitive selection process yields a maximum of 40 counselors from the organization’s 220 students. 

“It’s a misconception that we are looking for high-energy people, because a lot of our campers are not high-energy,” Harold said. “It’s important that we have kind and empathetic counselors that can level with them more.” 

With the start of camp approaching in a few days, Lichty is most excited about reestablishing the bonds she created with campers last year. 

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“Camp gives you all these connections with these campers, and you don’t see them for a year,” Lichty said. “So I am definitely excited to reconnect with campers and see how they’ve been doing.

“The kids here know that the entire population of campers have been through a similar thing and it really levels the playing field of shared experience,” she said. “It’s really that shared experience that brings them together and allows the camp to work its magic.”

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