That is where Camp Kesem at Emory University comes in.
The week-long overnight camp is for children ages 6 to 16 who have parents diagnosed with cancer.
While the camp is not designed as therapy or specializes in mental counseling, the therapy it does offer is allowing kids to just be kids for a week — playing games, making crafts and having fun.
“It’s a week where they can just be kids and not have to worry about what’s going on with their parents and don’t have to take on additional responsibilities,” camp co-director Liz Carson said.
Oftentimes, children who have parents suffering from cancer have to take on more responsibility, whether it is caring for younger siblings or the ailing parent.
Carson recalls one camper who had to clean and tend to the sores of his mother.
“As a preteen, I can’t imagine what that would be like,” she said.
Others help parents to appointments and keep track of medication.
“Sometimes they might not realize how much they are stepping up,” she said. “They take on a wide range of responsibilities.”
The camp also allows the children to be around peers who are in similar situations, so they know that they are not alone.
Many of the children carry around guilt about their parent’s cancer, said Carson, an Emory senior who will spend her fourth summer at the camp this year.
“There was a camper my first summer who came up to our mental health professional at camp and told him, ‘I think I’m the reason my mom has cancer,’” she said. “He went on to explain that he had a lot of allergies and right around the time he was diagnosed, his mom got sick.”
The young boy, for two years, had been harboring the guilt of thinking it was his fault his mom got sick.
“This is not a unique case,” Carson said. “[The campers] have misconceptions about cancer. They think they were the reason their parents got sick because they [themselves] got sick or stressed their parents out.”
One young girl was afraid to tell her best friend that her parent had cancer, because she did not want her thinking she could spread cancer.
“Things like that are so heart breaking and powerful to me,” Carson said.
Powerful because the counselors have an opportunity to make a difference.
“Thinking about the kids is the reason we are doing it,” she said. “It’s so much bigger than any of us, because it’s a whole family of kids that can come to us during the week and have these friends who know where they are coming from. They learn what it means to really be resilient and to share how much love and support they have for each other is really incredible.”
The camp is run by 50 student volunteers who go through an application and interview process and receive 20 to 30 hours of training before the camp.
It began in 2009, with less than 20 campers and has grown to accepting 75 campers this year. The camp is free to attend, so fundraising is a key effort to make it happen.
Each counselor has a personal fundraising goal of $500, and other events throughout the year help build the coffers, such as a 5K race in April, as well as bake sales.
Each year, the counselors organize a Make the Magic event to raise enough funds for 20 campers to attend.
It is a signature event of the national chapter of Camp Kesem, but each school chapter adds its own twist.
This year’s event is Sunday, from noon to 2 p.m. at the Miller-Ward Alumni house near Emory’s campus.
Appetizers and drinks will be served, attendants can bid in a silent auction and there will be a panel of campers and their families to speak on what the camp has meant to them.
“The student volunteers can talk about camp all day long, but people can get the perspective of the campers and the effect it has on the families,” Carson said.
For more information on the events and tickets, visit www.campkesem.org/emory.
Not only is the camp experience fulfilling for the campers, but for the counselors as well.
“I think the counselors, for the most part, are going in based on what we think of as a counselor — being these kids’ role models and heroes,” Carson said. “Coming out of the week, that kind of shifts and more than anything, these campers are our role models and people we respect and look up to.”
This year, the camp is starting a counselor-in-training program for kids ages 17 to 18 who have aged out of the camp but want to come back and learn leadership skills and become part of the support network.
This year’s camp will be July 20 to 25 in Ten Mile, Tenn., roughly three hours away from Emory.
If you go:
What: Make the Magic
When: Sunday, noon to 2 p.m.
Where: Miller-Ward Alumni House, 201 Dowman Drive in Atlanta
Information and tickets: www.campkesem.org/emory