Freshman Heather Niemetscheck remembers what it feels like to need a break from home – especially when her mother was diagnosed with cancer. The experience prompted her to start working with students to create a sleep-away camp for children who have parents with cancer.
“It’s good to separate yourself from that tense atmosphere,” Niemetscheck said.
Camp Kesem is a one-week sleep-away camp for children ages six to 13 who have a parent that has been diagnosed with cancer, even if the cancer has been cured. The camp is organized and run by college students, who have to find a location for the camp, plan the activities and help to raise the money needed to send each camper to Kesem free of charge.
There are currently 15 colleges across the country with students who organize Kesem camps, among them University of Virginia, Columbia University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“Even when they say it’s under control, it’s great to have a support system. It’s scary,” Niemetschek said.
Sarah Leibach, a freshman and another GW Kesem organizer, said the camp is not for children with cancer.
“It’s a normal camp for kids in a bad situation,” Leibach said.
Kesem does not provide therapy for the campers, according to the Web site, but there is a social worker on staff to help the counselors, who are all college students.
Jeff Liebach, Sarah’s brother and the national program director for Kesem, said that cancer does not just drain families emotionally, but also financially.
“Cancer has put most of these families in a precarious financial situation,” he said.
Jeff said that 80 percent of the funds for each camp are raised by private donations from friends and family of the organizing students.
Sarah Leibach said that $1,000 can usually support three campers and one counselor, but the cost can vary.
The GW group is still in the beginning stages of organizing support on campus and held two recruitment meetings last week to help spread the word among the student body.
In 2000, students at Stanford University working with Hillel founded the first Kesem, which means magic in Hebrew. However, the camps are not affiliated with any religion and are open to children from all backgrounds.
In 2006, 459 kids and 257 counselors participated in Camp Kesems around the country, according to its Web site. Although college students organize Kesem, the weeklong program does not take place on college campuses and students are required to rent out an off-site camp facility.
Allison Rubin, a freshman who attended one of last week’s information sessions, said she is not intimidated by the tough road ahead in organizing a GW-run Camp Kesem. She said, “You have all those smiling faces as your tangible result.”