Chronic illnesses and their accompanying treatment are hard on the individual patients but can have just as much of an impact — if not more — on family.
Camp Kesem is a summer program founded in 2000 at Stanford University, with the goal of helping children whose family members have cancer. It has more than 100 chapters across 40 states, including one started at Northern Illinois University in 2017.
NIU student Alexis Mugnolo is the chapter’s outreach coordinator. She says camp participants have varied experiences with the disease in their families.
“Any kid that has a parent that has cancer currently and is fighting, had a parent that had cancer in the past and had passed away or is in remission, so any sort of cancer relation toward the parent or primary guardian,” she explained.
Mugnolo says the chapter does outreach work in several areas to find potential Camp Kesem kids.
“We go to hospitals, cancer centers, hospice, schools, primarily," she said, "and there I talk to teachers, psychologists, psychiatrists, counselors.”
Once they get in touch with the children and parents, she can then assemble a group of campers. Most of the kids are from nearby areas, but there is no strict geographical limit. This means a kid from the Quad Cities could join the group even if the closest chapter is further east.
More than 20 kids with the NIU Chapter left for Fredonia, Wisconsin, this weekend for a week of activities. Mugnolo emphasizes that the program isn’t a therapy camp, but it’s easier for the kids to make friends because of their shared experiences.
“Because they all have parents who are affected by cancer, they automatically feel like ‘Okay, so we’ve been through something similar. We can be friends’,” Mugnolo said.
From there, Mugnolo says, the plan is simple: “We basically take them, send them to camp and do the best, most fun activities that you could possibly imagine.”
Some of that is standard outdoor camp fare, such as rock climbing, kayaking, and archery; but other activities can get a bit messy.
“Throw chocolate syrup on people, whipped cream, fun stuff like that," Mugnolo said. "We do shaving-cream wars, we do color wars where we throw paint at each other.”
But even in the upbeat atmosphere of Camp Kesem, Mugnolo says the kids still get a chance to discuss their family experiences.
“There’s one time that we talk about it. It’s called empowerment," she explained. "It gives the kids a chance to come up and talk about their experience with their parents with cancer, but then other than that, it’s just a good time. Sweet summer time.”
Despite not being a “therapy camp,” the activities are therapeutic for the kids dealing with chronic illness in the family. Mugnolo says both the kids and their families tend to be quite satisfied by the end of the experience.
“It’s so genuine on both ends. We’re doing it because we want to make a difference in their kids’ lives," she said, "but these parents are thanking us because they know how much it has changed their family.”
The children from the NIU chapter will continue camp until Friday. The Fredonia site will host members of other chapters this month. Nationwide, Camp Kesem sent more than 7,300 kids to camp last year. The local chapters, such as NIU, the University of Illinois, and Bradley University in Peoria, hope to increase that number going forward.