Students Organize Summer Camp for Kids of Cancer Patients

Two camp counselors stand on hill, shouting to group of campers assembled below.
Counselors lead a crowd in a camp song — a key part of every day at Camp Kesem — in 2017. (Courtesy Joe Na)

There is a group of students at UC Davis who make magic.

They can be found Saturday mornings singing camp songs in Olson Hall, circled up on the Quad on Fridays for cabin chats, or spotted around campus sporting T-shirts emblazoned with a green and blue caterpillar named Karl.

These are the members of Camp Kesem at UC Davis, students who organize, do fundraising and put on two weeks of free summer camp for children in the greater Sacramento region affected by a parent’s cancer.


Lev Farris Goldenberg with other camp counselors
Lev Farris Goldenberg, second from right

Lev Farris Goldenberg is a junior majoring in anthropology and a writing fellow in the Office of Strategic CommunicationsHe was a camper at the UC Davis chapter of Camp Kesem for two years and is now in his fourth year as a counselor, with the camp nickname of “NASA.” He says joining Camp Kesem was the best decision he ever made.

Kesem — which means “magic” in Hebrew — is a nationwide, nonprofit organization run by college students at the campus level. The Davis chapter, founded in 2004, is one of more than 130 spread across 44 states. It is also the largest in Northern California, serving around 300 campers each year.

This year is a big one for Kesem at Davis. It will be the first time since 2019 that campers and counselors will return to camp in person after two summers of virtual programming.

The camp — held at Camp Sugar Pine, just a few miles from Yosemite — will run two sessions from Aug. 3 to 15.

“I think it’s really hard to describe how it feels to go back in person after so long,” said third-year music and anthropology major Chloe DeBarros. “Going to camp is an experience that is incomparable. … It’ll be my first time as a counselor in-person, so I expect lots of happy tears from myself.”

DeBarros attended UCLA’s Kesem program as a camper for nine years and is in her third year as a counselor at Davis.

During her years in the UCLA program, DeBarros came to be called “Clover,” and she brought it with her to Davis, where all of the chapter’s 160-plus members also have camp names — names that the members call one another not just during summer camp, but year-round. Hearing a friend shout “Ketchup” or “Meatball” or “Leviosa” across the Quad is not an uncommon occurrence.

Clover is planning camp this year as part of her role as an operations coordinator, along with fellow coordinators Brendan “Magoo” Crow, Taylor “Maple” Slarve and Sophie “Saturn” Stern.

Camp days fill up with fun activities, from gaga ball to friendship-bracelet-making to talent shows. Every night is a special event. Day 1 is Campfire. Day 2? Newbie show, where new counselors get dressed up by campers and perform improv. Movie nights, talent shows, Messy Olympics and dance parties fill up the other days.

Cabin chats go deep

The shadow of cancer feels far away at Kesem.

Each night ends with a cabin chat, one of Kesem’s most treasured traditions. Campers and counselors circle up and answer questions — some deep, some silly. It is an opportunity to open up about “Why I Kesem.” In other words, to talk about the cancer experience that has brought them to camp — something that many kids do not get a chance to do in their day-to-day lives.

“College students are drawn to help these kids because they are just like us in so many ways,” Ryan “Padre” Cohen said. “They’re going through things that are so incredibly difficult. … They all have these childhoods of their own that are being impacted by their family’s health diagnosis and we want to help kids that are like us as much as possible.”

Padre, a fourth-year communication major, is one of the Davis chapter’s two directors, along with Ella “Almond” Piper. He has seen what the magic of Kesem means — not just to campers, but to the college students who support them.

“We obviously do it for the kids and the families — that’s what it’s all about,” Padre said. “But we, as counselors, obviously get so much out of it too, and that’s what makes Kesem so special. I love my fellow counselors like family, and we’re such a special unit once we get to camp. And that rubs off for the campers, too.” 

Continued Padre: “When the counselors are together and unified as one, it makes the entire experience for every camper and every counselor that much more enjoyable, because you really feel like you’re in a safe space where you’re allowed to be more vulnerable.”

Camp counselor with paint on her face and clothes embraces a camper.
Camper Sawyer Kennish and counselor Alyssa “Skippy” Wheeler hug after a Messy Olympics activity in 2019, the last time Kesem held an in-person camp. (Courtesy Camp Kesem)

‘Make the Magic’ Gala

To make all that magic at camp possible, the college students have to do a mountain of work throughout the year.

Every Kesem member is responsible for helping fundraise to reach the Davis chapter’s yearly goal of $200,000. Students write letters, send emails, hold bake sales and pull off crazy dares in exchange for donations.

But the biggest fundraiser of the year is the annual Make the Magic Gala.

On April 30, friends of Davis Kesem flocked to the California State Railroad Museum for an evening of music, auctions and Kesem magic. Bouquets of flowers and golden caterpillars adorned tables blanketed in white.

Kesem families, alumni and guests all showed up in their finest for the first in-person gala in three years. They sang a camp song, were serenaded by a jazz band led by Kesem’s Jacob “Drummer Boi” Green, and listened to speeches from current campers and counselors. After dinner, guests bid on auction items like dessert cakes and Tahoe cabin stays. Each paddle raise drew a louder roar from the crowd.

The night was a resounding success, raising $100,000.

Dylan “Cactus” Blaufus planned the event, along with fellow gala coordinators Nina “Willow” Steinkemper and Aarya “Guava” Gupta.

“It’s truly one of the most inspiring moments I have ever gotten to take part in,” Cactus said. “To be able to share the Kesem love and support with members of the community and guests who have never attended (camp) before was really beautiful. … Having the privilege of planning this event for an organization I feel incredibly connected to was fulfilling in itself.”

People sit around a campfire.
Campers and counselors end each day at Camp Kesem with a cabin chat, a time to answer deep and silly questions. Here, teen campers share during a fireside cabin chat in 2018. (Courtesy Joe Na)

A common experience

Every other Saturday morning during spring quarter, Kesem members gather in Olson Hall for a precamp training.

A lot of care and preparation goes into serving this particular population of kids (nationwide, Kesem serves 8,600 kids affected by cancer). They have been through a lot, and Kesem counselors know this — many of them have gone through cancer experiences of their own.

This is part of what makes Kesem unique: It is a community of people who have shared a common experience. And the tight-knit nature of this group of student leaders is the result.

Kelly “Sharky” Weihrauch is one of almost 100 new members that Kesem welcomed near the end of fall quarter. And she can already feel the Kesem magic.

“Kesem has made me feel like I’ve known the members for years when I only joined a handful of weeks ago,” Sharky said. “The Kesem community is the definition of releasing your inner child. … Something that might normally feel silly is welcomed with wide open arms, smiles and laughter at Kesem.”

More information about Camp Kesem, including a form to register a child, is available online. The UC Davis chapter is accepting donations online.

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