Sunday, February 19, 2012

Could you help bring a little “magic” to the our area?

Published in The Fauquier Times-Democrat, Weekend Edition on February 17, 2012

Kesem.  It means magic.  For the children who attend Camp Kesem, they need miracles more than magic.
This free, weeklong overnight camp is run by college student volunteers every summer and serves children ages six to thirteen.  It is a chance for children to share the joys of childhood and remember to laugh and celebrate youth.  And it is a chance for them to forget.

The children who attend Camp Kesem are identified by oncologists, hospice caregivers, and grief counselors.  They share more than youth and a week of fun. They all bear the devastating mark of cancer.  The one thing that unites the children of Camp Kesem is the thing that scars them: They each have a parent who is or who was diagnosed with cancer.

I don’t want to be ugly or dark in today’s column.  You may tell me that, genetically, this is unavoidable for me, regardless of my topic.  But I think you know what I mean.  Cancer pervades us.  Sometimes it invades us or those whom we love most dearly.

Nearly 12 million people in the United States were diagnosed with, or already living with, cancer in January of 2008.  The American Cancer Society’s website defines this as cancer prevalence, which is different from cancer incidence.  The “incidence” of cancer is the new diagnoses each year.   This year, statisticians expect 1,638,910 new cases of cancer in the US.

For the children whose world is unraveled by learning their parent, their pillar, has cancer, this is likely the only incidence that matters in their world.  Mom is sick, or maybe Dad is sick - very, very sick.  There is an upheaval of priorities.  Their childhoods, their homes, and their routines – everything changes.

I was in the ninth grade when we found out that my mom had cancer of the larynx.  When I reflect now, I marvel at my parents’ fortitude.  She was only forty years old when her persistent, inexplicable cough was finally given a name and a root cause.  She had never smoked.  I can still remember my Latin teacher whispering to another teacher that my mom had cancer.  That was the first time I comprehended the gravity of cancer.

My mom is now 72 years old.  That’s not to say she hasn’t had her challenges; I think her medical charts outweigh her.  But she has survived.  Her vocal cord was removed and left her with a raspy voice and a series of tracheostomies that required suction to keep her airway clear.  She cannot raise her voice, and often claps to get our attention.  But those are minor. 

The thing that saddens me is that she lost her ability to sing.  My mother loved to sing.  Don’t tell anyone, but so do I.  Like me, she was never particularly good at it, either.  But, oh, she loved to sing.  While cooking or doing housework, she would sing the plaintive love songs of the old Hindi black and white films.  That simple joy was taken with the vocal cord.

I have only heard her wistfully mention this once.  She has seen her children graduate, marry, and have children of their own.  She has seen grandchildren graduate too.  These joys she would not be denied.  She has lived and thrived and survived.

But all are not so fortunate.  And for some who linger, the pain is excruciating and overwhelming.  For those of us who are not oncologists or research scientists, the most we can do is to pray and hope and offer comfort and support.

Many choose to assist research efforts by fundraising, and we can take heart in the advances in earlier detection as well as new treatment methods. 

But those are for the patient.  Camp Kesem serves those children who stand on the periphery of cancer, watching their parents’ lives be overtaken and swallowed up by cancer.

Begun over a decade ago at Stanford University by four college students, Camp Kesem served 37 campers in the year 2000.  “Kesem” means magic in Hebrew.  In the last decade, Camp Kesem has spread to 37 chapters in 22 states.  In 2011, nearly 1,500 campers had a chance to forget their worries and just be children.  They were served by almost one thousand student leaders on campuses across the nation.  While these college students serve, they learn to lead.  The purpose of Camp Kesem is really two-fold.

In our area, the University of Virginia, the University of Richmond, and George Washington University already offer camps.  Last year, my eldest daughter at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore helped to bring one to their campus as well.  This August, JHU students will host their first Camp Kesem.  It will serve children in Maryland, greater DC, and Virginia. 

While the camp is free and the student labor is too, there are real expenses involved with such an enterprise.  The students need to raise about $ 20,000 to run the camp.  If you are inclined to help in this endeavor, please visit to learn more or donate, and specify JHU on the form. 

Thank you so much.


  1. Thank you so much for providing this valuable information! I have forwarded this on to the non-profit I volunteer with (Spiritual Care Support Ministries in Warrenton), as I know it will come in handy for some of our clients and their children. THANK YOU!

    1. Thanks, Amy. One of my students last year had attended Camp Kesem, and to hear him speak, I knew it had meant the world to him after his family's devastating loss.