Camp Kesem: Living, Breathing Love

The 14-year-old boy towered over the rest of the kids, a mighty tree among saplings.  With a 6 foot 4 frame, most at the summer camp would imagine him to own the basketball court, maybe put some younger kids in their place, but not Cole.  The boy was a gentle giant.

As the summer camp marched through the week, Cole never uttered more than a few words, preferring to keep to himself. It came as no surprise when Cole chose not to participate in group discussions.  After all, Camp Kesem is not your average summer camp; it is the camp’s goal to support children through and beyond parent’s bouts with cancer. For some, like Cole, it can be easier to hide behind a wall of silence.

By the end of the week, however, something had changed in Cole.  The once quiet and stoic boy had broken from his shell, basking in the light of overwhelming support from both campers and counselors alike, letting go of the intense emotions he had harbored.  Cole had found a home with Camp Kesem.


All across the country, kids just like Cole are reaping the benefits of Camp Kesem. Started in 2000, the organization sponsors a week-long summer camp for children coping with a parent’s illness, with no cost to the families.

How can such a wonderful organization provide a free camp, you might be asking? It starts and ends with student counselors, such as junior Lucas Christy of the Gamma-Nu chapter at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

Camp Kesem’s famous Belly Flop competition is a must for every counselor.

“So basically how it works is there are about 90 chapters, if you think of any major university, odds are they have a Camp Kesem,” said Christy.  “Throughout the year, students fundraise to literally put on the entire camp; we hire professional staff, like psychologists, nurses and the campground itself.  It’s a great organization, certainly one of the best things I’ve done at Carolina and will continue to do moving forward.”

Among other fundraising opportunities, Make the Magic is by far the  biggest fundraiser of the year for the camp.  A dinner is held along with a large auction, and guests are encouraged to donate as much as they can to make sure the camp is always free.  This year, the hot item for all of those March Madness fanatics is a UNC team-signed basketball, with signatures from Roy Williams and top NBA prospect Justin Jackson, among others.

Along with the proceeds from Make the Magic, each counselor is tasked with raising a baseline $500  for the camp.  According to Christy, counselors do not need to be forced to fundraise, rather they view it  as their duty and honor.

When all funds have been raised (for Christy and the rest of his counselors from UNC, the target revenue is $65,000, though they hope to raise much, much more) and summer is upon Chapel Hill, it is time for the kids to go to their place of escape.

For Christy and his other Lambda Chi brothers, the week of camp has become something of a tradition for the chapter.

“A lot of our fraternity brothers are involved in Camp Kesem, it’s pretty much our secondary charity,” said Christy. “We have 13 counselors as a brotherhood, which is basically a force.”

With this force in tow, Lambda Chi takes on Camp Kesem every summer to provide an unforgettable time.

Christy (right) with some campers.

The campers are split into different age groups and are tasked with choosing activities which catch their interest.  Christy believes that the real magic happens, though, when kids of all ages are brought together.

One such time is the camp-wide talent show, and Christy assures that it is a time when stars are born.

“One of my campers, Duncan, he was masterful with Chinese yo-yos, and would throw these things in the air, catch them, spin them behind his back, just crazy talented,” Christy recalled with a laugh.  “You have a 6-year-old who walks up on stage and says, ‘I’m going to show you a magic trick!’, and takes the card out of the deck and that’s it, and everyone just loses their mind.”

The talent show serves as a light-hearted activity, but the true essence of the camp comes from Empowerment, a time to share stories and allow for support and unity. But one thing that Christy emphasizes is the fact that while these kids are in a similar situation, an important part of the program is treating each child as an individual.

Through this idea, the camp is able to maintain the loving, positive environment for which it is known.


Camp Kesem encourages fun and laughter for all its participants.

It might be difficult for an outsider to understand the degree to which Christy and other counselors feel about Camp Kesem.  The dedication to these kids shines through, though.  It becomes the mission of all camp staff to provide Camp Kesem kids with something that has been taken from them: a childhood.

“My time as a counselor at Camp Kesem was the best week of my life,” said John Verderame, Gamma-Nu member.  “It was incredibly rewarding and life-changing to interact with these incredibly strong kids, who are going through more than I could ever imagine.”

Kids, such as Cole, are able to find their escape in Camp Kesem, and as long as there are caring and dedicated individuals, like brothers of Lambda Chi, the support and love will continue to consume each child in its radiance.

“Camp has made me a better person, more so than the other way around,” affirmed Christy.  “It’s really taught me how to be more compassionate and certainly accepting of others and their circumstances, it’s awesome.  It’s an environment of living, breathing love.”