The 'magical' camp for children whose parents have cancer

More than 6,000 children this summer whose parents have been touched by cancer will visit Camp Kesem this summer.

Story highlights

  • Camp Kesem provides free summer camp for children whose parents have cancer or died from the disease
  • This summer, over 6,000 children will attend, and more than 3,000 college students will volunteer

Kelly Wallace is CNN's digital correspondent and editor-at-large covering family, career and life. Read her other columns and follow her reports at CNN Parents and on Twitter @kellywallacetv.

(CNN)When Abigail "Abi" Yates was 10 and her father was battling a rare blood disease, her parents told her they were sending her to a special summer camp.

She cried.
"I did not want to go. I didn't know anybody. I was like, 'Why do I have to do this?' " Abi said. "And, at the time, I didn't understand the severity of my father's illness, either. ... I just knew that something was wrong and I had to go to this camp, so I didn't know what to expect."
    Abi Yates, left, with her mother, father and younger sister, Sophie.
    Her sister Sophie, then 6, also wasn't happy about it. "If Abi didn't want to go, she didn't want to go, either," said Jennifer Yates, their mother.
    Yates had seen a flyer for the camp in an oncology office in Bloomington, Indiana. It was advertising a pilot program at Indiana University called Camp Kesem, which was providing free week-long summer camps for children across the country whose parents had been diagnosed with cancer or have died from the disease. They would be fueled by volunteer college students working to give these children the best summer they could hope for.
    Yates didn't think her kids would qualify because her husband had a rare blood disease called aplastic anemia and was not diagnosed with cancer. But when she called, they welcomed her children with open arms.
    "The impact of that first Camp Kesem experience was profound," she said.
    When she and her husband went to pick up the girls, they did not want to leave. "My husband and I were just sobbing, in tears ... because they had had fun, and I didn't remember, really, the last time that they were laughing like that and just really had an easy time," Yates said.
    Another surprise was the Camp Kesem policy that any camper who attends is guaranteed a spot the following year if they want to return.
    "That turned it for me where I said, 'Oh, my God, this is going to be the best week of their lives every year,' " Yates said.
    Abi Yates, left, with other college student volunteers at Indiana University's Camp Kesem chapter in 2015.
    Abi and Sophie have now been going to Camp Kesem every year since 2005, and Abi became head of the Indiana University Camp Kesem chapter during her time at the college. She has now been hired to work full-time for the camp and is the first camper to become a member of the professional team.
    "Kesem definitely gave me a family that I didn't know I really needed," said Abi, now 22. "They were all going through something really terrible and through something so awful, we were all given this beautiful gift of a common understanding and a group of people that were really a family for life."

    An opportunity to be a kid again

    Camp Kesem was founded in 2000 by Iris Ravé Wedeking, a lifelong camper who was looking to create a program that college students could really plan for and build, said Jane Saccaro, Camp Kesem's chief executive officer.
    Ravé Wedeking, now a Camp Kesem board member, originally planned a camp for children with cancer but soon realized there were a lot of similar programs.
    "But there were not many for children whose parents were the ones battling the disease," Saccaro said. "Still, to this day, 16 years later, there are virtually no support services out there for children whose parents are going through this."
    The first camp took place at Stanford University and has grown into a program with 85 college chapters across the country. Each of the camps takes place on campsites about two to three hours from the college campuses to ensure a true summer camp experience, said Saccaro.
    This summer, Camp Kesem will run over 90 weeks of camp at 70 locations across the country. More than 3,000 college students will be volunteering their time and energy to provide unique, life-changing experiences for children whose parents have been touched by cancer. The students plan the camps, raise money to help finance them and then help run them during the summer, but nurses and mental health professionals are also on hand.
    Marty Shamon, 24, became a college student volunteer after his freshman year at the University of Illinois. His father was first diagnosed with cancer when Shamon was 4 and ultimately died from the disease when he was 10.
    When his college adviser sent around a list of clubs that were meeting on campus, Camp Kesem caught his eye. His first summer at Camp Kesem may be the most impactful experience of his life.
    Marty Shamon with his dad, who died of cancer when Shamon was 10.
    "Honestly, for me, it was my opportunity to be a child," Shamon said. "Cancer, especially in a child's life, can force you to mature and force you to look at things in a way that a child shouldn't necessarily have to." Even though he was 18, he finally had gotten his chance to be a kid.
    But importantly, after years of being brave in the face of cancer, during that first summer as a counselor at Camp Kesem, Shamon also got the courage to open up.