Free camp for children whose parents have had cancer

  camp  kesem laughs


Children of parents with cancer need a break. That’s why Camp Kesem, a free, week-long retreat was born—to remind kids they are kids. And to show them they are not alone.

With 41 chapters in 24 states and 12 new chapters launching in 2014, it’s for six- to 16-year olds with a parent in treatment, past treatment, or who may have died of cancer.


“It’s a week of messy, fun games, other activities, and lots of talking,” says Liane  Anderson, Camp Kesem’s marketing officer. 


Kids get to know everyone fast, as they are paired in small groups by age, with about one counselor for every three campers. They paint together, swim together, hike and do zip lines. Before they crawl into their bunks at night, there are Cabin Chats, and later in the week, an Empowerment Ceremony where they sit around a fire pit and tell their story if they want.

 “These conversations are facilitated by the counselors, most who have had a parent with cancer or cancer themselves, so they understand. Some of the talk is light, like who’s hot in music. Or if they want, they talk about tougher subjects like what’s going on at home,” says Liane.

After a few days of a very consistent routine, they break for “Color Wars Day,” where they wear bandannas or maybe t-shirts representing their team’s color.

“This one day is a little crazy and different where they split up in different groups with all ages and counselors mixed up. It’s a fun, surprising day of friendly competition,” says Elizabeth Gray, Camp Kesem’s program director

What’s a Color War look like? …  a six-year-old girl with sweat-streaked, pink cheeks breaks loose from her place in line She takes the glob of icing in her hand, and creams the first counselor in the row of them, lined up across the field in their lawn chairs, waiting to take the hit.

The little girl flies past the goo-faced counselors, retreats to the back of the relay line, with the next in front ready to go, while their teammates bounce, laugh, hoot and holler.

Now that they’re good and dirty, it’s on to a game of Twister on a huge paper matt with round puddles of green, blue, red and yellow paint. When campers hear “Right foot green,” they dip their toes into the thick, wet puddles. Later they motor on their paint-muddled feet to a field for a water gun battle.

Color Wars Day culminates with an awards ceremony.

“We have a lot of ties because we want everyone to be a winner. Or we’ll have an award for every team so everyone gets recognized,” says Elizabeth.

Finally, it’s time to pack up and head home.

“Kids go back exhausted, dirty, and hopefully more relaxed and able to handle the unknowns of cancer, knowing they are not alone,” says Liane.


But it’s not over at the end of the week.

Kids can come back the next year, and in between, they meet up for reunions and other events. Even once they’re too old to be campers, they can join a Counselors in Training program and start a chapter or join an existing one.

“So it’s not just one week of summer camp, but an established community. Kids can say, “I have this family; we have something in common,” says Liane. “It’s a wonderful, peer-based support that stays with them.”

Sessions run from June through August and applications are currently being accepted. To learn how to sign up for Camp Kesem, or about becoming a counselor:


Other supports for kids whose parent has had cancer:


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6 Responses to “Free camp for children whose parents have had cancer”
  1. Rhonda Wood says:

    Our kids went last year through the UCLA chapter and loved it. We are signed up to go again this summer!

  2. Maureen Marcotte says:

    How do we find out what states have this program?

    • admin says:

      Maureen, You can contact Camp Kasem at their link. This second idea might be more cumbersome, but you can google Camp Kasem and your state. I know there are FB pages for each of many of the individual locations. They’re all through colleges.

  3. Hello, I’ll look into this for our state of Idaho, this is so necessary for these children. I do a service for our ladies undergoing chemo therapy by shaving their heads without charge. The women who have children I encourage them to bring the kids, as I try to make it as fun as I can by either having them do the 1st shave by or I’ll shave mom’s hair like a Mohawk, or some silly shape. I have found this helps some children know that just because Mom loses her hair it’s not the end. I then put her chosen wig on and presto!, Moms back to herself. I try to have this time to be fun or at least not so frightening.
    On another subject, I’d like to link your website with ours if you are willing. I’d say 80% of our ladies are going through cancer and I like your website very much. Thank you! Deanna

    • admin says:

      Hi Deanna,

      Sounds like you make losing your hair as much fun as doable. My stylist was waiting for me with a glass of wine in a private room. Was actually ok! Thanks for the compliment, and yes, of course you can link to my site.


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