Every Hoo Has a Story: Cancer Scare Led to His Purpose at UVA

May 2, 2024 By Mike Mather, mike.mather@virginia.edu Mike Mather, mike.mather@virginia.edu

It’s hard to see what Charles Ellison is talking about until he tugs aside the collar of his button-down dress shirt.

There, between his Adam’s apple and his clavicle, is a thread-thin white scar stretching from one side of his neck to the other. After several years of healing, the mark is so faint it easily blends with the folds of his skin. But surgery at 13 left a deeper impression that, much later, shaped his four years at the University of Virginia.

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To Ellison, “making the most of it” means making sure that kids worried about cancer can set aside their fears and anxieties, even if just for a short while.

In his first year in Charlottesville, Ellison applied to be a counselor for UVA’s chapter of Camp Kesem, part of a national organization that provides free, weeklong summer camps for kids who are dealing with a parent’s cancer. Like most summer camps, Camp Kesem packs in all the high-energy staples, but also allows quiet times for kids to talk with counselors and their fellow campers about what they’re going through. 

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Ellison thought being a counselor was all he’d have time for with his studies. But after that first fateful summer, he decided, “I can make a little more room for this in my schedule.”

Now in his fourth year, he and a classmate are the co-directors of the local Camp Kesem chapter. 

UVA Today ran into Ellison when we were setting up cameras for this series, “Every Hoo Has a Story.” The premise is that we convince fourth-year students we randomly spot on the Lawn to sit for a brief interview on the notion that each one has a compelling story to tell about their UVA experiences. Ellison was finishing a graduation photo shoot when we coaxed him over.

Ellison said it was hard as a 13-year-old facing cancer surgery to see past that awful week in the hospital. And while his teenage self still imagined going to college one day, there is no way that young boy could have known just how great an experience he would have at UVA. 

“The amount of things I have been fortunate to be involved with, I wish he could have seen where all this would have led,” Ellison said, “and how worth it it would all be.” 

All of this, Ellison said, is because of a mother and father who stood by him when times were toughest. 

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Mike Mather

Managing Editor University Communications