SOPHIA, N.C. — Jessica Chang was a freshman at Duke University planning to study chemistry and go to medical school.
Richard Summers was a freshman at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill whose mother had died from breast cancer when he was 13 years old.
Both heard about Camp Kesem, a one-week camp for kids whose parents have or have had cancer. Students at Duke and UNC-CH organize and run the summer camp at the Girls Scouts’ Keyauwee Program Center in Sophia in Randolph County, south of Greensboro.
So the summer after their freshman year, Chang and Summers both worked as counselors at Camp Kesem, one of 23 similar programs throughout the U.S. that are based on an effort launched by students at the Jewish Hillel organization at Stanford University in 2001.
And this past summer, Chang and Summers served as co-directors of the camp, which draws campers from throughout North Carolina and southern Virginia.
“After this experience, I think I found a passion for working with kids and also for social change,” says Chang, now a senior who is majoring in psychology. “I want to be a teacher.”
Summers, a senior who plans after graduating to work at Barclays Capital in New York City, says Camp Kesem holds a special place in his heart because his mother died after a two-year struggle with breast cancer.
She first was diagnosed when he was two but then went into remission for nine years.
“It hit home there and I felt like I had a lot to give to the camp,” he says. “I got involved and just loved it from the start.”
Formed in 2003 in North Carolina, Camp Kesem this past summer was home away from home for a week for 111 campers and 57 counselors.
Under the direction of Chang and Summers, four committees of Duke and UNC students handle, respectively, recruitment of counselors; camper applications and reunions; administration and programming; and fundraising.
The students also serve as counselors and lead activities, including climbing, boating, hiking, archery and swimming.
Some positions, including a grief counselor, nurse and staff who require certification for activities like rock-wall climbing, are filled by older adults.
The camp is free for campers, with the students raising nearly $50,000 through online and social media to cover costs.
At Kesem, the Hebrew word for “magic,” the experience for campers is just that, Chang says.
“Kids are just growing in this one week and transforming into more competent and secure kids, and also having fun and just being kids,” she says. “We believe if we have fun with the kids, the therapy will happen on its own.”
Summers says kids whose parents have cancer face a lot of fear, uncertainty and stress.
“When you’re in their shoes, especially middle-schoolers, it’s very hard to talk to any of your friends about it,” he says. “I’m able to share my story and give a little bit about what happened in my life and how it’s affected me and made me the person I am today. I see a lot of myself in them.”
Chang says she has learned from working at Camp Kesem “how resilient these kids are and how strong they are because they’ve been forced to grow up so fast living in a stressful environment, or they have to be the parent looking over their siblings.”
Her experience at Kesem, she says, has “defined my entire college career.”