Official newspaper of The University of Texas at Austin

The Daily Texan

Official newspaper of The University of Texas at Austin

The Daily Texan

Official newspaper of The University of Texas at Austin

The Daily Texan

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October 4, 2022

Camp Kesem provides community, support for children of parents with cancer diagnoses

Courtesy of Camp Kesem

Clayton Smith runs as fast as he can, dodging blow after blow, until someone creeps up behind him. He tries to run away, but his brother hits him. With only seconds to wipe paint off his eyes, Clayton chases after his brother in an attempt to hit him back.

The sound of laughter and joy reverberates as Camp Kesem partakes in their long-standing tradition: Messy Games. Yet, unlike other summer camps, these campers come together because of circumstances very few kids can understand.

A free, week-long summer camp, Camp Kesem aims to bring together kids with parents with cancer diagnoses. With 137 chapters across the country serving over 60,000 children, Camp Kesem provides a place where campers stay for a week, surrounded by peers going through similar situations. UT houses the largest Kesem chapter, raising over $200,000 this past year. 

Clayton Smith, co-director of the UT Kesem chapter, first came to Camp Kesem as a camper himself, finding a community of long-lasting friendships. Inspired by the support Kesem provided him, Smith felt inspired to return as a counselor.

“I really wanted to get back to these kids,” Smith said. “I’ve seen a lot of these kids grow up from being a little camper … and it’s really impactful to see the kind of support that Kesem gives them.”

Smith’s co-director, Alexandra Owens, hopes to provide the same accepting and welcoming community for campers that she found as a camper at Kesem. 

“I was able to kind of rediscover the joy that was taken out of my life,” Owens said. “I shut down when my mom got cancer. Going to camp, I really opened up just being around people who got it. I didn’t have to explain it. It was just this unspoken understanding.”

Owens said that watching campers come out of their shell proves one of the most gratifying aspects of working with Kesem.

“I had one kid in particular (come) up to me and he was like, ‘I don’t really get to be like this at home. At school, I’m a little more quiet,’ and this is the funniest kid,” Owens said. “He’s like the ringleader of the unit, so to hear that we provide him a place where he feels comfortable is so special.”

Jatin Khanna, Kesem’s Outreach Coordinator, said she also experienced many campers opening up. Khanna said he remembers a camper who, dealing with the loss of his dad, came to camp quiet and reserved. Yet as the week progressed, Khanna said he began to share his feelings.

“During lunchtime, I saw him talking with other six-year-olds about losing his dad to cancer and they would share their own experience,” Khanna said. “The fact that they feel comfortable at six years old to be able to talk about this stuff with other six (year) olds, that’s what Kesem can achieve.”

Kesem’s impact reaches beyond the campers, as the camp also empowers the lives of counselors and administrators, Khanna said.

“It’s definitely given a lot of meaning to my life,” Khanna said. “It’s made me realize the power of one’s experiences (and) how I can use my own experiences to empower other kids who are going through similar stuff.”

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